Footrot Flats volume 1


By Murray Ball (Titan Books)
ISBN: 978-1-85286-335-7

You may or may not have heard of Footrot Flats. Created by Murray Ball on his return to his homeland of New Zealand, it ran from 1975 to 1994 in newspapers on four continents, yet for one of the most successfully syndicated strips in the world, it seems to have passed from common memory with staggering rapidity.

Once the series concluded, Ball – whilst running his own farm – continued to release books of new material until 2000, resulting in a total of 27 daily strip collections, 8 volumes of Sunday pages and 5 pocket books, plus ancillary publications such as calendars.

There was a stage musical, a theme park and a truly superb animated film Footrot Flats: The Dog’s Tail Tale.

A well-travelled wanderer, Murray Ball moved to England in the early 1960s, becoming a cartoonist for Punch as well as drawing (ostensibly) children’s strips for DC Thompson and Fleetway as well as a more adult-oriented strip in Labour Weekly. Eventually home called and the artist headed back South. Resettling in New Zealand in 1974, Ball became busier than ever.

He bought a smallholding on the North Island and farmed in his spare time (for anyone not brought up in the country, that last bit was “sarcasm”). This inevitably led to the strip in question. Taking the adage “write what you know” to startling heights, the peripatetic artist promptly gave up sleeping altogether to craft these wickedly funny yarns about an oaf and his dog, and I for one will be eternally grateful. You might be old enough to remember it being syndicated here in the Today newspaper…

Then again, you might not be old enough to remember newspapers.

Wallace Footrot Cadwallader is a big, bluff farmer. He’s a regular bloke, likes his food; loves his Rugby. He owns a small sheep farm (the eponymous Footrot Flats) best described as “400 acres of swamp between Ureweras and the Sea”.

With his chief – and only – hand Cooch Windgrass, and a sheepdog who calls himself “Dog” Wal makes a living and is his own boss. Dog is the star (and narrator) of most of the strips: a cool know-all and blowhard, he’s utterly devoted to his scruffy, no-nonsense master – unless there’s food about or Jess (the sheepdog bitch from down the road) is in heat again.

Dry, surreal and wonderfully self-deprecating, the humour comes from the perfectly realised characters – human and otherwise – the tough life of a bachelor farmer and especially the country itself.

The cartooning is absolutely top-rate. Ball is one of those gifted few who can actually draw funnily. When combined with his sharp, incisive writing the result is pure magic. But be warned. Ball can also break your heart with a few terse words and the right confection of tightly-inked lines.

I’m reviewing the 1990 Titan Books edition, but the same material is readily available from a number of publishers and retailers although none of the varied volumes are particularly cheap. If any cartoon feature ever needed compiling in a comprehensive digital edition it’s this superb series.

Until then, If I’ve convinced you to give the Dog a go, your favourite search engine will be all the help you need…

Go on. Fetch!
© 1990 Diogenes Designs Ltd. All rights reserved.

Walt Disney’s Donald Duck Adventures: Sheriff of Bullet Valley (Gladstone Comic Album #5)


By Carl Barks (Gladstone)
ISBN: 978-0-944599-04-4

From the 1940’s until the mid-1960s Carl Barks worked in productive seclusion, writing and drawing a brilliantly timeless treasure trove of comedic adventure yarns for kids, building a splendidly accessible Duck Universe filled with memorable – and highly bankable – stars such as Uncle Scrooge McDuck, Gladstone Gander, the Beagle Boys, Gyro Gearloose and Magica De Spell to augment the stable of cartoon properties from the Disney Studio. His most exciting works inevitably involved the rowdy, know-it-all nephews of Donald Duck: Huey, Dewey and Louie.

Although catalysts of comedic chaos in other situations when the mallard miser was around, the devilishly downy ducklings’ usual assigned roles were as smartly sensible, precocious and a just a little bit snotty kid-counterfoils to their “unca”, whose irascible nature caused him to act like an overgrown brat most of the time.

Nevertheless, all too often the kids reverted to type and fell prey to a perpetual temptation to raise a ruckus…

Gladstone Publishing began re-releasing Barks material and a selection of other Disney comics strips in the late 1980s and this – still readily available – paperback album is another of the very best.

Whilst producing all that landmark comics material Barks was just a working guy, drawing unforgettable covers, illustrating other people’s scripts when necessary and infallibly contributing perfectly formed tales to the burgeoning canon of Donald Duck and other Big Screen characters. Barks’ output was incredible both in terms of quantity and especially in its unfailingly high quality.

Printed in the large European oversized format (278 x 223mm), this terrific tome reprints the lead tale from Dell Four Color Comics Series II #199 (October 1948) and draws much of its unflagging energy and trenchant whimsy from Barks’ own love of cowboy fiction – albeit seductively tempered with his self-deprecatory sense of absurdist humour. For example, a wanted poster on the jailhouse wall portrays the artist himself and offers the princely sum of $1000 and 50¢ for his inevitable capture…

Titular lead Donald Duck is also an expert on the Wild West – after all, he’s seen all the movies – so when he and the boys drive through scenic Bullet Valley, a wanted poster catches his eye and his imagination.

Soon he’s signed up and sworn in as a doughty deputy, determined to catch the rustlers who have been plaguing the locals. Unfortunately for him, the good old days never really existed and today’s bandits use radios, trucks and tommy-guns to achieve their nefarious ends. Can Donald’s impetuous boldness and the nephews’ collective brains and Junior Woodchuck training defeat the ruthless high-tech raiders?

Of course they can…

Also included here is a delightful comedy of farmyard errors from Daisy Duck’s Diary (Dell Four Color Comics Series II, #1150 December 1960), pitting the well-meaning old fussbudget against luck-drenched Gladstone Gander and consequently suffering from ‘Too Much Help’.

Donald and the nephews then return, finding themselves at odds with the self-same fowl of fabulous good-fortune in an untitled yarn from Walt Disney Comics & Stories #212 (May 1958), wherein our hard-luck hero and Gladstone race around the world in rocket-ships, cheerfully provided courtesy of that feathered modern Edison Gyro Gearloose. The diminutive ducky lads can only watch in nervous anticipation of inescapable disaster catching up to the feuding “adults”…

Even if you can’t find this specific volume (and trust me, you’ll be glad if you do) Barks’ work is now readily accessible through a number of publications and outlets and every one of his works is well worth reading. No matter what your age or temperament, if you’ve never experienced his captivating magic, you can discover “the Hans Christian Andersen of Comics” simply by applying yourself and your credit cards to any search engine.

Always remember, a fan’s got to do what a fan’s got to do…
© 1988, 1960, 1958, 1948 The Walt Disney Company. All rights reserved.

Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse in The Lair of Wolf Barker – Gladstone Comic Album #3


By Floyd Gottfredson & various(Gladstone)
ISBN: 978-0-94459-903-7

Some of the most potent, effective and long-lived comics strip material in world history is not self-originated but actually comes from spinning-off existing properties. This is never more evident than with animated characters such as Betty Boop, Felix the Cat or assorted Walt Disney silver screen stars.

Cartoons starring cartoon stars became a huge circulation-booster in the decades following the First World War. Translated into newspaper strips – and later comicbooks – gags and continuity adventures of celluloid sensations reached and affected untold millions of readers around the globe, making household names of many characters and, occasionally, the writers and draughtsmen who crafted them.

Usually though, recognition was for the property owner and the unsung, pencil-pushing maestros who turned silver-screen gems into polished gold remained largely anonymous.

One of the most talented was Floyd Gottfredson; a cartooning pathfinder who started out as just another warm body in the Walt Disney animation factory before being diverted to become a narrative groundbreaker as influential as Herriman, McCay, Segar or his old work associate Carl Barks.

Gottfredson took company icon Mickey Mouse from his wild and anarchic animated rodent roots and slap-stick beginnings, through to the gently suburbanised sitcom gags of a newly middle-class America that syndicate policy eventually forced upon him. The gradual daily and weekly metamorphosis was accomplished via some of the earliest adventure continuities in comics history, with the Mouse playing detective, explorer, aviator and cowboy. Along the way he produced some of the most engrossing amusing and unforgettable comics the industry has ever seen.

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

In 1928 he and his wife moved to California, and after a shaky start found work in April 1929 as an In-Betweener at the burgeoning Walt Disney Studios. As the Great Depression hit, he was personally asked by Disney to take over the newborn and ailing Mickey Mouse newspaper strip. Gottfredson would plot, draw and often script the strip for the next forty-five-and-a-half years.

Veteran animator Ub Iwerks had initiated the feature but was swiftly replaced by Win Smith. The strip was plagued with problems and young Gottfredson was only supposed to pitch in until a regular creator could be found.

His first effort saw print on May 5th 1930 (Floyd’s 25th birthday) and just kept going; an uninterrupted run over the next five decades. On January 17th 1932, Gottfredson created the first colour Sunday page, which he contiguously handled until 1938, and then almost continually until his retirement.

At first he did everything, but in 1934 relinquished the scripting role, preferring plotting and illustrating the adventures to playing with dialogue. Collaborating scripters included Ted Osborne, Merrill De Maris, Dick Shaw, Bill Walsh, Roy Williams and Del Connell. Gottfredson briefly used inkers such as Al Taliaferro, but re-assumed full art chores in 1943.

Partially scripted by Ted Osborne and inked by Al Taliaferro & Ted Thwaites, the main story in this superb – and still readily available – compendium collects the very first extended Mickey Sunday colour epic which originally ran from January 29th to June 18th 1933.

Lurking behind a cover by Daan Jippes, ‘The Lair of Wolf Barker’ is a rip-roaring comedy western featuring the full wide-screen repertory cast: Mickey, Minnie Mouse, Horace Horsecollar, Clarabelle Cow, and the prototype Goofy, who used to answer to the moniker Dippy Dog.

The gang head west to look after Uncle Mortimer’s sprawling ranch and stumble into a baffling crisis since the cattle are progressively vanishing, with the unsavoury eponymous villain riding roughshod over the assorted characters and stock figures, before his ultimate and well-deserved come-uppance. This is action comics on the fly, with plenty of rough and tumble action, twists turns and surprises always alloyed to snappy, fast-packed gags.

Rounding out this full-colour, album-sized paperback book is an early Mickey gag – ‘Spring S’prise’ from 1932 and tragically uncredited – plus another landmark Sunday strip tale. ‘Mickey’s Nephews’ introduced rascally prank-plying Morty and Ferdie Fieldmouse in a short romp (September 18th to November 6th 1932) full of waggish behaviour and wicked japery.

This sequence was inked by Al Taliaferro, who recalled the story five years later when he and scripter Ted Osborne needed a quick plot for their latest assignment. That job was the new Donald Duck strip and their response was the infamous ‘Donald’s Nephews’ which introduced Huey, Louie and Dewey to the world…

Gottfredson’s influence on not just the Disney Canon but graphic narrative itself is inestimable: he was one of the first to produce long continuities and (relatively) straight adventure stories; he pioneered team-ups and invented some of the first “super-villains” in the business. When Disney killed the continuities in 1955, dictating that henceforth strips would only contain one-off gags, Gottfredson adapted easily, working on until retirement in 1975. His last daily appeared on November 15th and the final Sunday strip on September 19th 1976.

Like all Disney creators Gottfredson worked in utter anonymity, but in the 1960s his identity was revealed and the voluble appreciation of his previously unsuspected horde of devotees led to interviews, overviews and public appearances, with effect that subsequent reprinting in books, comics and albums carried a credit for the quiet, reserved master. Floyd Gottfredson died on July 22nd 1986.

This huge untapped well of work is only available in tiny snippets like these old Gladstone albums, but hopefully now that Disney own a major comics company some bright spark will realise the potential of the artistic treasures they’ve been sitting on and we’ll soon seen a Gottfredson Mickey Mouse Epic Collection even if only as digital editions.

And since we’re wishing I’d still like World Peace, total parity and equality between all ages, races, genders and outlying pigeon holes but especially that Red Ryder 200 Shot BB Gun I didn’t get when I was eight…
© 1987, 1933, 1932 The Walt Disney Company. All rights reserved.

Nine Lives to Live – A Classic Felix Celebration


By Otto Messmer, edited by David Gerstein (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-308-9

It might surprise you to know, but funny kitties actually pre-date the internet.

Felix is a hilarious, antic-enjoying talking cat of ancient vintage. He was created by Otto Messmer for the Pat Sullivan animation studio in 1915 and was an overnight global hit. Those moving picture cartoons led to a long supplementary career as a newspaper strip, as well as a plethora of merchandisable products in many other media.

Messmer wrote and drew the Sunday strip – which first premiered in London papers – before the feature finally launched in the USA on August 19th 1923. As Messmer’s employer and boss, Sullivan re-inked those initial strips, signed them, and then took all the credit for both strips and even the cartoons, which Messmer carried on directing until 1931.

Otto quietly toiled on, producing Sunday pages and daily strips for decades. In 1955, his assistant Joe Oriolo took over the creative duties and simultaneously began a campaign to return the credit for Felix’s invention and exploits to the true originator. It wasn’t until the 1960s that shy, loyal, brilliant Otto Messmer finally admitted what most of the industry had known for years…

As the cat evolved through successive movie shorts – and eventually numerous TV appearances – an additional and ever-expanding paraphernalia of mad professors, clunky robots and the cat’s legendary magic Bag of Tricks gradually became icons of Felix’s magical world, but most of that is the stuff of a later time and – hopefully – another volume.

The early work collected here comes from the halcyon 1920’s and displays a profoundly different kind of whimsy.

Fast-paced slapstick, fantastic invention and, yes, a few images and gags that might arch the collective metaphorical eyebrow of our more enlightened times; these are the strips that caught the world’s imagination nearly a century ago.

This was a time when even the modern citizens of America and Great Britain were social primitives compared to us – or at least so I’d like to think.

The imagination and wonderment of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat and Cliff Sterrett’s Polly and her Pals – both so similar to Felix in style, tone and execution – got the same responses from their contemporary readership and with the same sole intent: To make the customer laugh.

Our modern tendency to casually label as racist or sexist any such historical incidence in popular art-forms, whilst ignoring the same “sins” in High Art, is the worst kind of aesthetic bigotry, is usually prompted by an opportunistic bias and really truly ticks me off.

Why not use those incensed sensibilities and attendant publicity squalls to confront the still-present injustices and inequalities so many people are still enduring rather than take a cheap shot at a bygone, less enlightened world when most creators had no conception of the potential ramifications of their efforts?

Sorry about that, but the point remains that the history of our artform is always going to be curtailed and covert if we are not allowed the same “conditional discharge” afforded to film, ballet, opera, painting or novels. When was the last time anybody demanded that Oliver Twist was banned or shunned because of its depiction of one Jew?

These days the rush to label things racist, sexist or any other “ist” actually shuts down debate before anything can be achieved to fix or even address the problem…

None of which alter the fact that Felix the Cat is a brilliant and important comic strip by an unsung genius. The wonderful work collected here – which includes hundreds of rowdily phantasmagorical Daily and Sunday strips plus comprehensive biography, filmography and TV videography sections – perfectly encapsulate the wonder, universal charm and rapid-fire, surreal gags that enchanted generations and will still delight and enthrall youngsters of all ages.
© 1996 O.G. Publishing Corp.

Garth: The Cloud of Balthus


By Jim Edgar & Frank Bellamy, with John Allard (Titan Books)
ISBN 10: 0-90761-034-X                   ISBN: 978-0-90761-034-2

British Superman Garth first appeared in the Daily Mirror on Saturday, July 24th 1943, the creation of professional cartoonist Steve Dowling and BBC radio producer Gordon Boshell, at the behest of the editor who wanted an adventure strip to complement their other comic strip features, Buck Ryan, Belinda Blue Eyes, Just Jake and immortal, morale-boosting Jane.

A blond giant and physical marvel, Garth washed up on an island shore and into the arms of a pretty girl, Gala, with no memory of who he was. Nonetheless he saved the entire populace from a brutal tyrant and a legend began. Boshell never had time to write the series, so Dowling, already producing the successful family strip The Ruggles, scripted Garth until a new writer could be found.

Don Freeman dumped the amnesia plot in ‘The Seven Ages of Garth’ (which ran from September 18th 1944 until January 20th 1946) by introducing imposing jack-of-all-sciences Professor Lumiere whose psychological experiments regressed the burly hero back through some past lives.

In the next tale ‘The Saga of Garth’ (January 22nd 1946 to July 20th 1946) his origin was revealed. As a child, he’d been found floating in a coracle off the Shetlands and adopted by a kindly old couple. When grown he became a Navy Captain until he was torpedoed off Tibet in 1943…

Freeman continued as writer until 1952 (‘Flight into the Future’ was his last tale), and was briefly replaced by script editor Hugh McClelland (who only wrote ‘Invasion From Space’) until Peter O’Donnell took over in February 1953 with ‘Warriors of Krull’.

He wrote 28 adventures until resigning in 1966 to devote more time to his own strip; something he called Modesty Blaise.

His place was taken by Jim Edgar; a short-story writer who also scripted such prestigious newspaper strips as Matt Marriott, Wes Slade and Gun Law.

Dowling retired in 1968 and his long-time assistant John Allard took over the strip until a suitable permanent artist could be found. Allard completed ten complete tales until Frank Bellamy began a legendary run with the 13th daily instalment of ‘Sundance’ (which ran from 28th June to 1 October 11th 1971).

Allard remained as background artist and assistant until Bellamy took full control during ‘The Orb of Trimandias’.

One thing Professor Lumiere had discovered and which gave this strip its distinctive appeal – even before the fantastic artwork of Bellamy elevated it to dizzying heights of graphic brilliance – was Garth’s involuntary ability to travel through time and re-experience past and future lives. This simple concept lent the strip an unfailing potential for exotic storylines and fantastic exploits, pushing it beyond its humble beginning as a British response to Siegel and Shuster’s American phenomenon Superman.

The tales in this criminally out of print monochrome tome begin with the aforementioned ‘Sundance’ as mighty Garth is sucked back to 1876 to relive his life as an officer of George Custer’s 7th Cavalry on the Eve of the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

The time-tossed titan has a brief but passionate love affair with Indian maiden Falling Leaf before dying valiantly for his beliefs and their love. It is an evocative, powerful tale that totally captures the bigotry, arrogance and futility of the White Man and the tragic demise of the Indian way of life…

Then eponymous epic ‘The Cloud of Balthus’ shows the open, simple elegance of the narrative concept in Garth. Whilst vacationing in the Caribbean our hero becomes embroiled in an espionage plot involving freelance super-spies and a US space station, but even that is mere prelude to fantastic adventure and deadly terrors when he and his delectable, double-dealing companion Lee Wan are abruptly abducted by nebulous energy beings in a taut, tension-fraught thriller.

‘The Orb of Trimandias’ plunges Garth back in time to the Venice of the Borgias, when he becomes again English Soldier-of-Fortune Lord Carthewan: a decent man battling an insane and all-powerful madman for the secret of a supernaturally potent holy relic. This gripping, exotic yarn is replete with flamboyant action, historical celebrities, sexy women and magnificently stirring locales. It’s a timeless treasure of adventure that has the added fillip of briefly reuniting Garth with his star-crossed true love, the ethereal Space Goddess Astra.

This lovely volume (long overdue for re-issue – at least in digital form if no other way is possible) concludes with a high-octane gothic horror story. ‘The Wolfman of Ausensee’ sees Garth as a rather reluctant companion of movie starlet Gloria Delmar on a shoot at the forbidding Austrian schloss (that’s a big ugly castle to you) of a playboy whose family was once cursed by witches.

Despite the title giving some of the game away, this is still a sharp and savvy spook-fest that ranks easily amongst the best Hammer Horror films, and just gets better with each rereading.

Garth is the quintessential British Action Hero – strong, smart, good-looking with a big heart and nose for trouble. His back-story gives him all of eternity and every genre to play in and the magnificent art of Frank Bellamy also made his too-brief tenure a stellar one.

Comic-strips seldom get this good, and even though this book and its sequel are still relatively easy to come by, it is still a crime and a mystery that all these wonderful tales have been out of print for so long.
© 1984 Mirror Group Newspapers. All rights reserved.

Jiggs is Back


By George McManus (City Lights/Celtic Book Company)
ISBN: 978-0-91366-682-1

Variously entitled Maggie and Jiggs or Bringing Up Father, the comedic magnum opus of George McManus ranks as one of the best and most influential comic strips of all time: a brilliant blend of high satire and low wit that drapes the rags-to-riches American dream with the cautionary admonition to be careful of what you wish for…

Relatively recently this magnificent series was celebrated with a lavish hardcover collection reprinting the strip’s captivating beginnings (see George McManus’s Bringing Up Father: Forever Nuts – Classic Screwball Strips) but that book, wonderful though it is, only prints black and white daily episodes, whilst this colossal softcover from 1986 concentrates on the exceptionally beautiful Sunday colour pages – a perfect proving ground for the artist’s incredible imagination to run wild with slapstick set-pieces, innovative page design and a near-mystical eye for fashion and pattern.

McManus was born on January 23rd in either 1882 or 1883 and drew from a very young age. His father, realising his talent, secured him work in the art department of the St. Louis Republic newspaper.

At thirteen George swept floors, ran errands and drew when ordered to. In an era before cheap, reliable photography, news stories were supplemented by drawn illustrations; usually of disasters, civic events and executions: McManus claimed he had attended 120 hangings (a national record!) but still found time to produce cartoons: honing his mordant wit and visual pacing. His first sale was Elmer and Oliver. He hated it.

The jobbing cartoonist had a legendary stroke of luck in 1903. Acting on a bootblack’s tip he placed a $100 bet on a 30-1 outsider and used his winnings to fund a trip to New York City. The young hopeful splurged his cash reserves but on his last day got two job offers: one from the McClure Syndicate and a lesser bid from Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World.

He took the smaller offer, went to work for Pulitzer and created a host of features for the paper including Snoozer, The Merry Marceline, Ready Money Ladies, Cheerful Charlie, Panhandle Pete, Let George Do It, Nibsy the Newsboy in Funny Fairyland (one of the earliest Little Nemo knock-offs) and, in 1904, his first big hit The Newlyweds.

This last brought him to the attention of Pulitzer’s arch rival William Randolph Hearst who, acting in tried and true manner, lured him away with big money in 1912. In Hearst’s papers, The Newlyweds became the Sunday page feature Their Only Child, and was soon supplemented by Outside the Asylum, The Whole Blooming Family, Spare Ribs and Gravy and, at last, Bringing Up Father.

At first it alternated with other McManus domestic comedies in the same slot, but eventually the artist dropped Oh, It’s Great to be Married!, Oh, It’s Great to Have a Home and Ah Yes! Our Happy Home! as well as his second Sunday strip Love Affairs of a Muttonhead to concentrate on the story of Irish hod-carrier Jiggs whose sudden and vast newfound wealth brought him no joy, whilst his parvenu wife Maggie and inexplicably comely and cultured daughter Nora constantly sought acceptance in “Polite” society.

The strip turned on the simplest of premises: whilst Maggie and Nora perpetually feted wealth and aristocracy, Jiggs – who only wanted to booze and schmooze and eat his beloved corned beef and cabbage – would somehow shoot down their plans; usually with severe personal consequences.

Maggie might have risen in society but she never lost her devastating accuracy with crockery and household appliances…

Bringing Up Father launched on January 12th 1913, originally appearing three times a week, then four and eventually every day. It made McManus two fortunes (the first lost in the 1929 Stock Market crash), spawned a radio show, a movie in 1928, five more between 1946-1950 (as well as an original Finnish film in 1939) and 9 silent animated short features, plus all the assorted marketing paraphernalia that fetches such high prices in today’s antique markets.

McManus died in 1954, and other creators continued the strip until May 28th 2000, its unbroken 87 years making it the second longest running newspaper strip of all time.

McManus said that he got the basic idea from The Rising Generation – a musical comedy he’d seen as a boy, but the premise of wealth not bringing happiness was only the foundation of the strip’s success.

Jigg’s discomfort at his elevated position, his yearnings for the nostalgic days and simple joys of youth are something everyone is prey to. However, the deciding factor and real magic at work here is an entrancing blend of slapstick, social commentary, sexual politics and flashy fashion, all cannily composted together and delivered by a man who lived and breathed comedy timing and could draw like an angel.

The incredibly clean simple lines and the superb use – and implicit understanding – of art nouveau and art deco imagery and Jazz Age philosophy – especially proffered in full colour – make this book a stunning treat for the eye.

This glorious rainbow of mirth includes an introduction from Pulitzer-winning author William Kennedy and an incisive analytical commentary from comics historian Bill Blackbeard for those that need or desire a grounding for their reading, but of course what we all want is to revel in the 48 magnificent, full-page escapades; thoughtfully divided into palatable sections starting with ‘The Joys of Poverty’ from 1923, wherein the family suffered a reversal of fortune and became once more poor, but happy.

This is followed by ‘The Vacation’ (December 9th 1939 to July 7th 1940), a visually spectacular epic following the wealthy-once-more family – complete with new aristocratic English twit son-in-law – on a city-by-city tour of America, and ‘Maggie, Do You Remember When…’ (selected from the peak period of the feature between 1933 and 1942): a shamelessly sentimental and dryly witty occasional series of bucolic recollections of “the good old days” that produced some of the most heart-warming and inventive episodes in the series’ entire history…

An added surprise for a strip of this vintage is the great egalitarianism of it. Although there is an occasional unwholesome visual stereotype to swallow and excuse, what we regard as racism is practically absent. The only thing to watch out for is the genteel sexism and class (un)consciousness, although McManus clearly pitched his tent on the side of the dirty, disenfranchised and downtrodden – as long as he could get a laugh out of it…

This wonderful, evocative celebration of the world’s greatest domestic comedy strip is a little hard to find but well worth the effort. Hopefully some sagacious entrepreneur will eventually get around to giving Bringing Up Father the deluxe reprint treatment it so deserves or at least creating a digital collection for modern-minded old-fashioned comedy mavens to relish and revel in.
© 1986 Celtic Book Company.

Krazy & Ignatz 1931-1932: “A Kat a’Lilt with Song”


By George Herriman, edited by Bill Blackbeard & Derya Ataker (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-594-6

The cartoon strip starring Krazy Kat is arguably the pinnacle of graphic narrative innovation; a singular and hugely influential body of work which shaped the early days of the comics industry and became an undisputed treasure of world literature.

Krazy and Ignatz, as it is now dubbed for these glorious commemorative tomes from Fantagraphics, is a creation which must be appreciated on its own terms. The strip developed a unique language – at once both visual and verbal – and dealt with the immeasurable variety of human experience, foibles and peccadilloes with unfaltering warmth and understanding without ever offending anybody.

Sadly, however, it baffled far more than a few…

It was never a strip for dull, slow or unimaginative people who simply won’t or can’t appreciate the complex multi-layered verbal and pictorial whimsy, absurdist philosophy or seamless blending of sardonic slapstick with arcane joshing. It is still the closest thing to pure poesy that narrative art has ever produced.

Herriman was already a successful cartoonist and journalist in 1913 when a cat and mouse who had been cropping up in his outrageous domestic comedy strip The Dingbat Family/The Family Upstairs graduated to their own feature. Krazy Kat debuted in William Randolph Hearst’s New York Evening Journal on Oct 28th 1913 and – largely by dint of the publishing magnate’s overpowering direct influence and interference – gradually spread throughout his vast stable of papers.

Although Hearst and a host of the period’s artistic and literary intelligentsia (notably – but not exclusively – e.e. Cummings, Frank Capra, John Alden Carpenter, Gilbert Seldes, Willem de Kooning, H.L. Mencken and – latterly – Jack Kerouac) all adored the strip, many local and regional editors did not; taking every potentially career-ending opportunity to drop it from the comics section.

Eventually the feature found a home and safe haven in the Arts and Drama section of Hearst’s papers. Protected there by the publisher’s heavy-handed patronage, the Kat flourished unharmed by editorial interference and fashion, running generally unmolested until Herriman’s death in April 1944.

The basic premise is simple: Krazy is an effeminate, dreamy, sensitive and romantic feline of indeterminate gender hopelessly in love with Ignatz Mouse: rude crude, brutal, mendacious and thoroughly scurrilous.

Ignatz is a true unreconstructed male; drinking, stealing, fighting, conniving, constantly neglecting his wife and children and always responding to Krazy’s genteel advances by clobbering the Kat with a well-aimed brick (obtained singly or in bulk from noted local brick-maker Kolin Kelly) which the smitten kitten invariably misidentifies as tokens of equally recondite affection.

The third crucial element completing an anthropomorphic eternal triangle is lawman Offissa Bull Pupp, who is completely besotted with Krazy, professionally aware of the Mouse’s true nature, yet hamstrung – by his own amorous timidity and sense of honour – from removing his devilish rival for the foolish feline’s affections.

Krazy is, of course, blithely oblivious to Pupp’s dilemma…

Also populating the ever-mutable stage are a stunning supporting cast of inspired bit players such as dreaded deliverer of unplanned, and generally unwanted, babies Joe Stork; hobo Bum Bill Bee, unsavoury conman and trickster Don Kiyoti, busybody Pauline Parrot, self-aggrandizing Walter Cephus Austridge, inscrutable, barely intelligible Chinese mallard Mock Duck, dozy Joe Turtil and a host of other audacious characters all equally capable of stealing the limelight and even supporting their own features.

The exotic, quixotic episodes occur in and around the Painted Desert environs of Coconino (based on the artist’s vacation retreat in Coconino County, Arizona) where surreal playfulness and the fluid ambiguity of the flora and landscape are perhaps the most important member of the cast.

The strips themselves are a masterful mélange of unique experimental art, wildly expressionistic and strongly referencing Navajo art forms whilst graphically utilising sheer unbridled imagination and delightfully evocative lettering and language: alliterative, phonetically and even onomatopoeically joyous with a compelling musical force (“Soff, soff brizz”, “l’il dahlink” or “Ignatz, ware four is thou at Ignatz??”).

Yet for all that, the adventures are poetic, satirical, timely, timeless, bittersweet, self-referential, fourth-wall bending, eerily idiosyncratic, astonishingly hilarious escapades encompassing every aspect of humour from painfully punning shaggy dog stories to riotous, violent slapstick.

Sometimes Herriman even eschewed his mystical mumblings and arcane argots for the simply sublime grace of a supremely entertaining silent gag in the manner of his beloved Keystone Cops

There’s been a wealth of Krazy Kat collections since the late 1970s when the strip was first rediscovered by a better-educated, open-minded and far more accepting generation. This delirious tome, covering all the new Sunday Page material from 1931-1932 in a comfortably hefty (231 x 15 x 305 mm) softcover edition – and also available as a merely magical digital edition – is another monochrome masterpiece expansively offers a beguiling extra treat by reprinting a selection of Herriman’s Krazy Kat Daily strips too.

Informative context, background and possible explanations are, as always, delivered by the much-missed Bill Blackbeard in another effusive exploration of Herriman’s earlier cartoon characters via his picture-packed Introductory essay ‘The Baron and the Duke: Other Great Stuff Before the Bricks Zipped’ with examples of prototypical charming social parasite Baron Mooch and anthropomorphic avian aristocrat and sporting good egg Gooseberry Sprig, the Duck Duke.

On to the strips then: within this compelling compendium of incessant passions thwarted in another land and time, the torrid triangular drama plays out as winningly as ever, but with a few new faces popping up to contribute to the insular insanity and well-cloaked social satire…

We open in the depths of February following a spate of (not-included) re-runs, with Krazy konsulting palm reader and “mystic of Mysore” Moul Azziz Khandi who advocates the spreading of a wild oat or two before it’s too late. Sadly, with someone as simplistic and literal-minded as the Kat, that’s a recipe for disaster when Offisa Pupp and Ignatz spot the shenanigans…

As always the mouse’s continual search for his ammunition of choice leads to many brick-based gags and his occasional fleecing by Coconino’s (occasionally “Kokonino”) copious coterie of confidence tricksters – a scurrilous sub-population which seems to grow weekly…

Of course, the mouse is a man who enjoys revenge served hot, cold or late…

Amongst the new arrivals is an extremely bellicose elephant who never forgets the slightest slight and harbours no love for the Law or its agents, and greater use of ideal comedy maguffin Joe Stork, whose delivery of (generally unwanted) babies still brings dread responsibility and smug schadenfreude in equal amounts to all denizens of the county.

As ever there is a solid dependence on the strange landscapes and eccentric flora for humorous inspiration and bizarre weather plays a greater part in inducing anxiety and bewilderment.

One happy circumstance is the growing use of the county lock-up as the escalating slapstick silliness more often concludes with Ignatz incarcerated. Naturally that just means the mean Mus Musculus (look it up if you must) magnifying his malevolent efforts; even regularly taking to the air in a series of aeronautical escapades…

A war of civic status breaks out between Coconino communities Shonto and Oljeto as both hamlets race to increase their populations by inviting immigrant rabbits and “Ginny Piggs” to settle there. It all gets very crowded after prankish Ignatz gets Joe Stork involved too…

Krazy has not surrendered that dream of a singing career, much to everybody’s dismay, and an (initially) welcome chaotic distraction arrives in the temporarily frozen form of Mr. Eale Ektrik Eel of Red Lake, before the Kacophonous Kitty becomes bemused by a flurry of unseasonal, geographically-challenged Coconut incursions…

The year 1932 started cold and wet but still offered more of the same before providing a new fascination for Krazy when commercial radio broadcasting began in Coconino. This talking point was quickly eclipsed by the introduction of a tumultuous cast addition: a distant relative and his lonely domicile: Uncle Tomm Katt and his ramshackle Cabin.

The venerable gent was no fool, hated cops and mice equally and dealt harshly with any fool dumb enough to heft bricks in his vicinity. He was to be only an occasional player on the Sunday pages but found his true home in the knockabout rowdiness of the Krazy Kat Dailies…

Herriman was a master of the comic strip and fully grasped the fundamental differences between the demands of short sharp bursts of fun needed for the Monday to Saturday strip and the vastly magnified scope afforded him by a whole page every sabbath. Here to close this volume is incorporated a run of Dailies which perfectly highlight the contrasts and similarities in ‘The Daily Krazy Kat Strip, 1931’ culled from the twenty or so papers which willingly ran the controversial periodical feature.

The 4 panel episodes span January 26th through April 4th; displaying less high-blown whimsy but a solid eye for a great visual gags and incorporating Herriman’s love of wild wordplay and slapstick cinema, with a smaller core cast playing fast and loose with sense and sensibilities…

Supplementing the cartoon gold is another erudite and instructional ‘Ignatz Mouse Debaffler Page’, providing ‘Komments on Mysteries of the Master’s Drawing Mesa’ through pertinent facts, snippets of contextual history and necessary notes for the young and potentially perplexed.

Herriman’s epochal classic is a phenomenal achievement: in all the arenas of Art and Literature there has never been anything like these comic strips which have shaped our industry and creators, and inspired auteurs in fields as disparate as prose fiction, film, dance, animation and music, whilst delivering delight and delectation to generations of wonder-starved fans.

If, however, you are one of Them and not Us, or if you actually haven’t experienced the gleeful graphic assault on the sensorium, mental equilibrium and emotional lexicon carefully thrown together by George Herriman from the dawn of the 20th century until the dog days of World War II, this astounding compendium is a most accessible way to do so.
© 2004, 2015 Fantagraphics Books. All rights reserved.

Moon Mullins: Two Adventures


By Frank H. Willard (Dover)
ISBN: 978-0486232379

An immensely popular newspaper strip in its day, Moon Mullins grew out of gentle – if bucolically rambunctious – Irish ethnic humour to become the comedy soap opera (one of the very first of its kind) that absolutely everybody followed.

Create by Frank Willard – a two-fisted, no-nonsense type with a cracking ear for dialogue, an unerring eye for winning social faux pas and an incorrigible sense of fun – the strip debuted on June 19th 1923. Willard wrote and drew both monochrome dailies and flashy Sunday colour segments until his death in 1958, whereupon his assistant Ferdinand “Ferd” Johnson (who began working with Willard scant months after the strip launched, and continued even whilst working on his own strips Texas Slim and Lovey-Dovey) assumed full authorship until his own retirement in 1991 – a gloriously uninterrupted tenure of 68 years.

The feature was marketed around the globe by the mighty Chicago Tribune/New York News Syndicate, and recounted the rowdily raucous, ribald, hand-to-mouth, lowbrow life and tribulations of Moonshine Mullins, lovable rogue and unsuccessful prize-fighter who was just getting by in tough circumstances.

The doughty rapscallion spent his time in bars, on the streets (sometimes the gutters) and most tellingly at the pokey boarding house of Emmy Schmaltz, located at 1323 Wump Street. Mullins was amiable and good-natured, liked to fight, loved to gamble, was slick with the ladies and had the worst friends imaginable…

He also had an iconic little brother, named Kayo, who was the visual prototype for every one of those tough-kid heroes in Derby hats (“bowlers” to us Brits) populating Simon & Kirby’s early work.

Brooklyn and Scrapper and all those other two-fisted, langwitch-manglin’ cynical, sassy tykes took their cues from the kid who often had the last word. The other mainstay of the strip was lanky landlady Emmy Schmaltz; a nosy interfering busybody with inflated airs and graces and a grand line in infectious catchphrases.

Other regulars included Uncle Willie – Moon’s utterly dissolute bad relation; saucy, flighty flapper (Little) Egypt – our hero’s occasional girlfriend and a dead ringer for silent film sensation Louise Brooks (and, incomprehensibly, Emmy’s niece), plus Mushmouth – a black character who will make modern audiences wince with social guilt and societal horror – although to be fair, in this strip which celebrated and venerated working class culture, he was far more a friend than foil, stooge or patsy.

One final regular was affluent Lord Plushbottom, whose eye for the ladies – particularly Egypt – constantly brought him sniffing around the boarding house. At the period of the tales in this volume he is a jolly English bachelor, completely unaware that the spidery spinster has set her cap for him. In 1933, after a decade of hilarious pursuit, she finally got her man…

Surprisingly still readily available as a paperback book (surely, if ever anything was crying out to be suitably and permanently digitally archived it’s vintage strips such as this), Moon Mullins: Two Adventures collects and reprints two marvellous extended romps originally reformatted from the newspapers and released in 1929 and 1931 by Cupples & Leon – a publishing company which specialized in reprinting popular strips in lush, black and white albums; very much a precursor of both comicbooks and today’s graphic novels.

In the first story Mullins is given a car in payment for $30 he foolishly lent Emmy’s ne’er-do-well brother Ziggy, unaware the vehicle is stolen. This is a delightful shambolic, knockabout episode with striking slapstick and clever intrigues resulting in the entire cast behind bars at one time or another.

It should be remembered that the cops in these circumstances are always everybody’s enemy and fools unto themselves…

The second tale describes how Plushbottom treats Emmy and Egypt to a Florida holiday, unaware that he’s also paying for Moon and Mushmouth to join them after a brilliantly inventive and madcap road-trip.

Each adventure is delivered via the incredibly difficult method of one complete gag-strip per day combining to form an over-arching narrative… and they’re all wonderfully drawn and still funny. If you’re a fan of classic W.C. Fields, Marx Brothers and other giants of vintage comedy you must see this stuff…

Moon Mullins was one of the key strips in the development of both cartooning and graphic narrative; hugely influential, seditiously engaging, constantly entertaining and perfectly drawn. With such a wealth of brilliant material surely, it’s only a matter of time until some fine publisher releases a definitive series of collected editions…
© 1929, 1931 The Chicago Tribune. All rights reserved.

Buster Brown: Early Strips in Full Color


By Richard F. Outcault with an introduction by August Derleth (Dover Publications)
ISBN: 978- 0-1-486-23006-1

Richard F. Outcault is credited with being the father (fans and historians are never going to stop debating this one, but Outcault is one of the most prime of all contenders) of the modern comic strip. His breakthrough was a scandalous creation dubbed The Yellow Kid for legendary newspaperman Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World in 1895 (the feature was actually entitled Hogan’s Alley) but the cartoon shenanigans captivated the reading public and even led to the coining of a new term: “Yellow Journalism”.

Outcault was notoriously fickle and quickly tired of his creation, and of the subsequent features he created for William Randolph Hearst in the New York Journal during a particularly grave period of bitter newspaper circulation warfare.

In 1902, he created a Little Lord Fauntleroy style moppet called Buster Brown, but the angelic looks actually acted as camouflage for a little boy perpetually wedded to mischief, pranks and poor decision making. Once again Outcault soon became bored and moved on, but this strip was another multi-media sensation, which captured public attention and spun off a plethora of franchises.

Buster was a merchandising bonanza. By a weird set of circumstances, Buster Brown Shoes became one of the biggest chain-stores in America, and in later years produced a periodical comicbook Premium (a giveaway magazine free to purchasers) packed with some of the greatest comic artists and adventure stories the industry had ever seen. Outcault may have dumped Buster, but the little devil darling never quit comics…

Way back in 1974 Dover Publications released this facsimile reproduction of an earlier collection from 1904, then entitled Buster Brown and his Resolutions, featuring fifteen glorious full-colour strips from the first two years of the run, and it’s about time they thought about doing it again – or even of publishing a far more comprehensive edition…

Until then however, let’s re-examine what we have here and meet the cherubic Hellion and his faithful dog Tige, and see that if indelicate or untoward happenstance doesn’t create another round of chaos in the ordered and genteel life of the well-to-do Mr. and Mrs. Brown, then little Buster is always happy to lend a hand.

Each lavish page, rendered in a delightfully classical, illustrative line style – like Cruickshank or perhaps Charles Dana Gibson – ends with a moral or resolution, but one that is subversively ambiguous.

As Buster himself is wont to comment, “People are usually good when there isn’t anything else to do.”

Historically pivotal, Buster Brown is also thematically a landmark in content, and a direct ancestor of the mischievous child strip that dominated the family market of the 20th century. Could Dennis the Menace (“Ours” or “Theirs”), Minnie the Minx or Bart Simpson have existed without Buster or his contemporary rivals The Katzenjammer Kids?

It’s pointless to speculate, but it’s no waste of time to find and enjoy this splendid strip.
© 1974 Dover Publications. All Rights Reserved.

The Complete Dickie Dare


By Milton Caniff (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 0-93019-322-9 (HB)                ISBN: 978-0-93019-321-8 (PB)

Despite being one of the greatest and most influential cartoonists in world history, Milton Caniff wasn’t an overnight sensation. He worked long and hard before he achieved his stellar status in the comic strip firmament, before Terry and the Pirates brought him fame, and Steve Canyon secured his fortune. The strip which brought him to the attention of legendary Press Baron “Captain Joseph Patterson” – in many ways the co-creator of Terry – was an unassuming daily feature about a little boy who was hungry for adventure…

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

Over a weekend Caniff came up with Dickie, a studious lad who would read a book and then fantasize himself into the story, taking his faithful little white dog Wags with him. The editors went for it and Dickie Dare premiered on July 31st, 1933.

Caniff would write and draw the adventures for less than eighteen months before moving on, although his excellent but unappreciated replacement Coulton Waugh steered the series until its conclusion two decades later.

The first day-dream was with Robin Hood, followed by a frantic, action-packed visit with Robinson Crusoe and Friday, battling hordes of yelling savages and scurvy pirates. Rugged combat gave way to fantastic mystery when the scholarly tyke studied Aladdin, resulting in a lavish and exotic trip to the fabled Far East. This adventure closed near Christmas, and when his father read Dickie the story of the Nativity, Caniff began his long tradition of creating seasonally topical strips.

The visit to Bethlehem ended on Christmas morning, and one of Dickie’s Christmas presents then triggers his next excursion, when he starts reading of General George Armstrong Custer

King Arthur is next, followed by Captain Kidd the Pirate, but by then Caniff was chafing under the self-imposed limitations of his creation. He believed the strip had become formulaic and there was no real tension or drama in mere dreams. In a creative masterstroke, he revised the strip’s parameters, and by so doing produced the prototype for a masterpiece.

On 11th May, 1934, Dickie met a new uncle: a globe-trotting author and two-fisted man-of-action dubbed Dan Flynn, and one week later the pair embarked on a Round-the-World trip. Caniff had moved swiftly, crafting a template that would become Terry and the Pirates.

The wide-eyed, nervy All-American Kid with the capable adult pal and ultra-capable adventurer, whilst a subject of much controversy and even ill-advised and outright scurrilous modern disparagement, was a literary archetype since before Treasure Island and adapting the relationship to comic-strips was commercially sound: a decision that would hit a peak of popularity with the horde of sidekicks/partners that followed in the wake of Robin the Boy Wonder six years later.

No sooner have Dickie and Dan taken ship for Africa than the drama begins, as the restless kid uncovers a hidden cargo of smuggled guns. Aided by feisty Debutante Kim Sheridan and sailor Algy Sparrow, our heroes foil the scheme, but not before Dickie is captured by Kuvo, the Arab chieftain awaiting the guns.

Pursued by the French authorities, Kuvo retreats to a desert fortress where Kim, disguised as a native slave-girl, rescues the lad, only to be caught herself. The full-tilt action comes to a splendid conclusion before the boys, with Algy in tow as butler, head for Tunis where they stumble across a plot to use a World War I U-Boat for ocean-going piracy….

This long adventure (beginning September 13th) is a thoroughly gripping yarn which encompasses much of the Mediterranean and Atlantic, as the boys escape the pirates and aid the Navy in hunting down the villains. There’s loads of action and an astonishing amount of tension but the tale ends a tad abruptly when Caniff, lured away by Patterson, simply drops the feature and Coulton Waugh takes over the storyline from the next Monday (3rd December).

With no break in the tale Waugh rapidly (14 episodes) wraps up the saga, and even has Dickie home by Christmas.

From the New Year the strip would chart new waters with Waugh at the helm, aided (and briefly replaced) by assistant and spouse Odin Burvik, whilst he wrote his seminal book on Comics and also when he was producing the strip Hank for the New York magazine PM. Dickie Dare eventually ended its run in October 1957 with the now adult adventurer beginning a new career as a US Navy Cadet.

Although usually dismissed as a mere stage on the road to his later mastery, and certainly long before Milton Caniff – and sometime studio partner Noel Sickles – made the chiaroscurist breakthroughs in line-art that revolutionised the form, these tales of Dickie Dare delighted and enthralled readers and deserve to be appreciated on their own merits. Full of easy whimsy and charm, the strip evolved into a rip-roaring, all-ages thriller, full of wit and derring-do, in many ways an American answer to Hergé’s Tintin. It’s long overdue for rediscovery by the mass-market, and while we’re at it, let’s see some of the work that the criminally under-valued Waugh originated too.
Artwork originally © 1933-1934 The Associated Press. Other contents this edition © Richard Marschall All rights reserved.