Happy Hooligan 1904-1905

By Frederick Burr Opper (Hyperion Press)
ISBN: 0-88355-658-8

While I eagerly await the arrival of my copy of the recent “Forever Nuts” hardback collection of Happy Hooligan I thought I’d dip again into the first collection of the eternal indigent that I ever saw: long ago whilst still a spotty, mildly angry punk art student…

Frederick Burr Opper was one of the first giants of comics, a hugely imaginative and skilled illustrator who moved into the burgeoning field of newspaper strips just as they were being born, and his pictorial creations (and even more so his dialogue) have forever changed the English language…

Born in 1857 the son of Austrian immigrants, Opper grew up in Madison, Ohio, and at age 14 joined the Madison Gazette as a printer’s apprentice. Two years later he was in New York. Always drawing, he worked briefly in a store whilst studying at Cooper Union (The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art was and is a magnificent experiment in education and excellence: look it up and be amazed…) before linking up as student and eventually, assistant, to illustration giant Frank Beard.

Opper sold his first cartoon to Wild Oats in 1876, swiftly following up with further sales to Scribbner’s Monthly, St. Nicholas Magazine and Frank Leslie’s Weekly, before joining the prestigious Puck in 1880, drawing everything from spot illustrations, gags, political cartoons and many of the new, full-colour, Chromolithographic covers. He was also a book illustrator of major renown, an incisive humorist, poet and creator of children’s books.

After 18 lucrative, influential – and steady – years, Opper was drawn away to join William Randolph Hearst’s growing stable of comics pioneers in 1899, joining the New York Journal’s Sunday Color Supplement, where Happy Hooligan first appeared on 11th March 1900. Although not a regular feature at the start – many cartoon strippers of the fledgling art form were given great leeway to experiment with a variety of ideas in those early days – before too long the feature became simply too popular to play with and settled into a stable tenure that lasted until 1932 when the artist’s failing eyesight led to his retirement and the tramp’s demise. Opper passed away at the end of August 1937.

Opper never used assistants but his imagination and unsurpassed creativity made Hooligan and other major features Alphonse and Gaston and the astoundingly madcap Mule strip And Her Name was Maud household favourites around the world, appealing equally to Presidents and public alike. As the feature became ever more popular experimental and lesser strips such as Howsan Lott and Our Antediluvian Ancestors had perforce to be abandoned.

Happy Hooligan is an affable, well-meaning but bumbling tramp who wears an old tin-can for a hat. Wishing nobody ill, this gentle vagrant is usually the inadvertent tool of better bred folks who should know better, cops a little too fond of the truncheon and nightstick, and harsh, unforgiving cosmic ill-fortune. It is a strip brimming with invention, pathos, social commentary, delightful wordplay and broad, reckless slapstick. More than one source cites Happy as having a profound influence on Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp in both content and tone…

This black and white volume, compiled and edited in 1977 by unsung hero of American comic strips Bill Blackbeard, with a fascinating introduction from historian Rich Marschall, reprints the entire continuity from 1904 and 1905, and follows the simple sad-sack across the USA and, after many abortive and hilarious attempts, across the sea to England. After weeks of raucous calamity trying to see the King and falling foul of the equally high-handed British constabulary, Happy, with brothers Montmorency and Gloomy Gus (yep that’s one of Opper’s…) in tow, the clan Hooligan then proceeded to make themselves unwelcome throughout Europe. These hilarious, rowdy escapades are often exacerbated by occasional visits from the ultra-polite Alphonse and Gaston, Opper’s legendary duo of etiquette elitism…

Crossovers were not Opper’s only innovation. Happy Hooligan is considered to be the first American strip to depend on word balloons rather than supplemental text, and the humble, heartwarming hobo was also the first strip character to jump to the Silver Screen in six movie shorts between 1900-1902. He was also probably the first mass-market merchandising comics star…

Both Opper and his creations become less well-known by the year, but the quality of the work can never fail to amuse and inspire. If I could have only found a way to play bass and keep that tin can on me head back then, you might be buying my comeback album about now rather than reading a recommendation to track down one of the very best cartoon masterpieces of all time…
© 1977 Hyperion Press. All rights reserved.

The Phantom vs. the Sky Maidens

By Lee Falk & Ray Moore (Ken Pierce)

In the 17th century a British sailor survived an attack by pirates, and washing ashore in Africa, swore on the skull of his murdered father to dedicate his life and that of all his descendents to destroying pirates and criminals. The Phantom fights crime and injustice from a base deep in the Jungles of Bengali, and throughout Africa he is known as the “Ghost Who Walks”, considered an immortal avenger by the credulous and the wicked. Down the decades one hero after another has fought and died in an unbroken line, and the latest wearer of the mask, indistinguishable from the first, continues the never-ending battle…

For such a successful, long-lived and influential series, in terms of graphic novel collections The Phantom has been very poorly served by the English language market. Various small companies have tries to collect the strips – one of the longest continually running adventure serials in publishing history – but in no systematic or chronological order and never with any sustained success.

This particular edition is a black and white paperback album from the early 1980s and comes courtesy of that pioneer of strip preservation and proliferation Ken Pierce, collecting in almost its entirety the second ever dailies saga (originally published from 9th November 1936 to April 10th 1937) from the annals of “The Ghost Who Walks.”

Lee Falk created Jungle Avenger at the request of his publishers who were already making history and public headway with his first strip sensation Mandrake the Magician. Although technically not the first ever costumed hero in comics, The Phantom was the prototype paladin to wear a skin-tight body-stocking, and the first to have a mask with opaque eye-slits.

He debuted on February 17th 1936 in an extended sequence that pitted him against a global confederation of pirates called the Singh Brotherhood. Falk wrote and drew the daily strip for the first two weeks before artist Ray Moore took over the illustration side. The Sundays feature began in May 1939.

This second rip-snorting adventure-mystery follows directly on from the initial outing (and with the Singh Brotherhood tale forms the basis for the exceptionally watchable 1996 movie staring Billy Zane) and finds the anonymous, indomitable hero blamed for the depredations of a gang of airborne bandits currently raiding passenger planes and airships throughout the orient.

Entitled ‘The Sky Band’ it was a great shock to avid readers of the 1930s to discover that those enigmatic, ruthless aerial brigands were all weak and feeble women – whereas re-titling the book “The Sky Maidens” might have tipped off any later fans…

Escaping from police custody with the aid of his faithful Pygmy warriors the Bandar, The Phantom is soon hot on the trail of the real mastermind…

Stuffed with chases, assorted fights, stunts and many a misapprehension – police and authorities clearly having a hard time believing a pistol-packing masked man with a pet wolf might not be a bad egg – this a gripping blood and thunder tale that still packs a punch and quite a few subtle laughs. Captured by the manic Baroness who runs the all-girl gang, The Phantom eventually turns the tide not by force but by exerting his masculine wiles upon the hot-blooded – if psychopathic – harridan, unaware until too late that his own beloved, true-blue Diana Palmer is watching…

It is truly inexplicable to me that in a marketplace which has rediscovered so many lost and forgotten comics treasures that such an iconic strip as the Phantom (and Mandrake the Magician for that matter) can remain uncollected and ignored, especially as the material is still fresh, entertaining and addictively compelling.

But, even if it were only of historical value (or just printed for Australians – who have long been manic devotees of the implacable champion) surely the Ghost Who Walks is worthy of a definitive chronological compendium series?
© 1982 King Features Syndicate. All rights reserved.

Walt Kelly’s Our Gang volume 4 1946-1947

By Walt Kelly (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-322-4

The Our Gang (later to be known as the Li’l Rascals) movie shorts were one of the most popular series in American Film history. Beginning in 1922 they featured the fun and folksy humour of a bunch of “typical kids” (atypically though, there was full racial equality and mingling – but the little girls were still always smarter than the boys) having idealised adventures in a time both safer and more simple. The rotating cast of characters and slapstick shenanigans were the brainchild of film genius Hal Roach (he directed and worked with Harold Lloyd, Charley Chase and Laurel and Hardy amongst many others) and these brief cinematic paeans to a mythic childhood entered the “household name” category of popular Americana in amazingly swift order.

As times and tastes changed Roach was forced to sell up to the celluloid butcher’s shop of MGM in 1938, and the features suffered the same interference and loss of control that marred the later careers of the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy and Buster Keaton.

In 1942 Dell released an Our Gang comic-book written and drawn by Walt Kelly who, consummate craftsman that he was, restored the wit, verve and charm of the cinematic glory days with a progression of short tales that elevated the lower-class American childhood to the mythic peaks of Dorothy in Oz or Huckleberry Finn.

Over the course of the first eight issues (see Walt Kelly’s Our Gang volume 1) the master raconteur moved beyond the films – good and otherwise – to build an idyllic story-scape of games and dares, excursions, adventures, get-rich-quick-schemes, battles with rival gangs and especially plucky victories over adults: mean, condescending, criminal or psychotic. Given more leeway, Kelly eventually in-filled with his own characters, but for this book aficionados and purists can still thrill to the classic cast.

This long-awaited fourth collection gathers the adventures from issues #24 to #30 (July 1946l -January 1947), and finds Kelly inserting more of himself into the mix. Here the light-hearted yarns often evolved into full-blooded dramas, with murderous returning villains and bold excursions far beyond what modern parents would allow their cosseted darlings to experience, all based on Kelly’s great fondness for the wholesome adventures of daring youth written by Horatio Alger and Oliver (the Rover Boys, Bobbsey Twins, Tom Swift) Optic.

The entrancing full colour fun leads off with riotous rumbles as Buckeye and Red Macdougal build a fake teleportation machine to prank Froggy, only to have two burglars steal the cardboard contraption thinking it the real deal, and thereafter the entire gang gets into serious danger when The Barrel returns.

The Hispanic master-criminal wants revenge for the way the kids foiled his counterfeiting ring, but luckily the old circus entertainer Professor Gravy is around – with his lion and tiger…

A rare (for the era) continued storyline begins with #26 as Froggy, Macdougal and Julip the goat join the Professor on his showboat for a summer of entertaining the river towns. Unfortunately the fugitive Barrel is also on board, incognito and desperate to skip town…

By the next issue the kids have taken care of their arch-enemy (for the meantime) and Julip takes centre-stage – or deck – when he swallows a talking toy parrot and the Professor thinks he’s found the showbiz sensation of the century: a hilarious tale that introduces as memorable new cast member, blustery lady-wrestler Guinevere.

As the kids continue their parent-free working vacation the showboat takes on two new passengers; a thoroughbred race horse and his owner trying to avoid thieves keen on stealing the elite hayburner. If I just mention that this is the same week that the boys are trying to perfect their pantomime-horse act I suspect you can guess where this tale is heading…

The two-fisted dénouement of that escapade left the riverboat high and dry on a reef, and in #29 the stranded cast decides that they will trap the horse-thieves who escaped capture during the battle that led to the crash. This is a dark tale indeed as Macdougal is kidnapped and shot, but the bonny lucky lad soon turns the tables on the villains thanks to some ghastly green flares and a handy graveyard…

This volume ends as the boys return to school and plunge straight into Baseball woes as old rival Feeny of the Gashouse gang frames the bespectacled Froggy. Banned by his teacher from playing in a vital match, the little wise guy needs somebody to pretend to be his mother and get him out of an unjust punishment. It’s a measure of his tenacity if not faith, when three separate versions of his mom turn up at the game…

Today’s comics have nothing like these magical masterpieces to offer to contemporary audiences. Many readers might not even be able to appreciate the sheer beauty, narrative charm and lost innocence of this style of children’s story: sumptuous confections from a true legend of our art-form with truly universal appeal.

If so I genuinely pity them, because this is work with heart and soul, drawn by one of the greatest exponents of graphic narrative America has ever produced. Be assured however, that their loss need not be yours…

© 2010 Fantagraphics Books. All Rights Reserved.

Abandoned Cars

By Tim Lane (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-341-5

Tim Lane is a post-war American. His inner landscape is populated with B-Movies, Rock and Roll, junk-memorabilia, big cars with fins, old television shows, Jack Kerouac, the seven ages of Marlon Brando, pulp fictions, young Elvis, distilled Depression-era experiences (all of them from “The Great” to the latest), black and white images on TV, a loss of faith in old values, Mad Avenue propaganda, compromised ideals and frustrated dreams. He calls that oh, so plunderable societal gestalt and psychic landscape “The Great American Mythological Drama”, and in this first collection of his stark, intriguing comic strips he dips deep and concocts his own striking contributions to the Great Double Martini of Life…

Many modern Americans are using that shared popular culture to create new paintings and sculptures (see any of the numerous “lowbrow” or “pop surrealist” tomes by Schorr, Ryden, Ledbetter et al that we’ve reviewed here over the last few months) but Lane has eschewed the gallery art arena for his explorations, opting instead for the only true American medium of expression, the story, and toils bombastically in its ugly bastard offspring – Comics.

He draws in stunning black and white: hard-edged, uncompromising and enticingly moody, and these short stories, vignettes, observations and sequential investigations are far from the usual stock of funnies.

The contents here are culled from a number of sources such as Legal Action Comics, Hotwire, Typhon, Riverfront Times and his self-published magazine Happy Hour in America from 2003 to 2008, and range from tales of dark, eccentric whimsy (‘American Cut-Out Collectibles’, ‘The Manic-Depressive from Another Planet’ and ‘The Aries Cow’) to philosophically charged musings (‘Ghost Road’, ‘To Be Happy’ and ‘The Drive Home’), Pop cultural pastiches (‘Outing’ and ‘Doo-Wop and Planet Earth’ ) fascinating autobiography and reportage (‘Spirit’ parts 1-3, ‘In My Dream’ and ‘You Are Here: the Story of Stagger Lee’) to just plain old-fashioned noir-tinted thrillers like ‘Cleveland’ and  ‘Sanctuary’.

The book also contains numerous untitled, enigmatic and addictive short pieces, and for my money the most evocative and powerful piece herein is an all but wordless, two-page rumination on age and loss: ‘Those Were Good Years’. You’d have to be made of stone to be unmoved…

Crafting comics is clearly not a job or hobby for Lane. Serious artists have always struggled to discover greater truths through their creative response to the world, and he has obviously found his instrument in black line on white and his muse in the shabby, avuncular, boisterous, scary detritus of our everyday, blue-collar communal past. The result is stunning and highly intoxicating.

Questing, introspective, insightful and as desperately inquiring as the young Bob Dylan, with as many questions, even fewer answers and just as much lasting, life-altering entertainment to be derived…

Why haven’t you got this book yet?

© 2003 – 2008, 2010 Tim Lane. All rights reserved.

Blazing Combat

By Archie Goodwin & various (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-366-8

If you’re a bold young publisher or passionate young author you know you must be doing something right when the American government is out to get you. At least that must have felt the case for struggling print entrepreneur Jim Warren and writer/editor Archie Goodwin in the months that followed the launch of the war anthology comics magazine Blazing Combat.

Warren had originally established himself with the black and white B-Movie periodical Famous Monsters of Filmland and satire magazine Help!, when in 1965 he took his admiration of the legendary 1950s EC Comics to its logical conclusion by reviving the concept of horror short stories for older fans by launching Creepy. Stuffed with clever, sardonic, tongue-in-cheek comics chillers illustrated by the top artists in the field (many of them ex-EC stars) he circumvented the all-powerful Comics Code Authority – which had ended EC’s glory days and eventually their entire comics line – by publishing as a newsstand magazine.

It was a no-lose proposition. Older readers didn’t care to be associated with “kid’s stuff” comic-books whilst magazines had tempting cachet (i.e. mild nudity and little more explicit violence) for readers of a transitional age; moreover the standard monochrome format was a quarter of the costs of colour periodicals.

Creepy was a huge and influential hit, especially among the increasingly rebellious teen market, often cited as a source of inspiration for the nascent underground commix movement and feeding on the growing renewed public interest in the supernatural. In true Darwinian “Grow or Die” mode Warren looked around for a new project.

At this time the war in Vietnam was starting to escalate, and the 1948 Selective Service Act – which had kept the Military, National Guard and Federal Reserve forces “topped up” with able-bodied men throughout the Cold War and Korean “Police Action” – was increasingly informing young men that they had been called up to “Advise” their allies in Indo-China on how to kill communists…

Archie Goodwin was a young cartoonist and writer working as an assistant art director at Redbook magazine. Another passionate EC fan, he had sold a script to Warren which appeared in Creepy #1, becoming its editor with #4, and was promptly offered the editor’s chair on Warren’s latest brainstorm. If EC horror had come back into vogue wouldn’t that audience also like a mag based on the old company’s landmark war anthologies Frontline Combat and Two-Fisted Tales?

We’ll never know.

Nowadays controversy sells and there’s no such thing as bad publicity but in 1965 it was a different world and these passionately realistic, uncompromising tales of battle were deemed anti-war (can that ever be a bad thing?) and anti-American: not by the readers but by the distributors paid to get Blazing Combat onto the shelves.

With the second quarterly issue copies were arbitrarily being left in warehouses, the American Legion publicly denounced the magazine – presumably for not showing war as a fun-filled, glorious picnic – and US Military authorities had banned the publication from all their PX’s (the Post Exchange and its Navy, Marine and Air Force equivalents were and still are the One-Stop-Shop of US bases and sold everything from reading materials to off-duty shoes – they were a major generator of comic-book sales) citing a number of Vietnam themed tales which implied that American soldiers were killing innocent civilians.

The public revelation of the My Lai massacre of as many as 507 villagers by American soldiers remained covered up until 1969…

Accompanied by fascinating and frankly gob-smacking interviews with Warren and Goodwin this wonderful, astounding collection re-presents all four of these monochrome masterpieces (which ran over a year from October 1965 to July 1966) in a rousing tome filled with trenchant, unforgettable war-stories by some of the greatest artists in the industry.

The moral body-blows and ethical challenges begin with ‘Viet-Cong!’(illustrated by Joe Orlando), just another grisly day in the field for our boys: marching, searching, torturing prisoners… followed by Angelo Torres’ ‘Aftermath!’, a paean to pride and stupidity set during the Civil War. Next is a terse, informative drama about the ‘Flying Tigers!’ drawn by aviation ace George Evans, and disturbing fable about ultimate objectives during the War in the Pacific, ‘Long View!’ by Gray Morrow.

Reed Crandall illustrated ‘Cantigny!’ decrying the patriotic madness of WWI, and Alex Toth drew a beautiful ‘Combat Quiz’ feature, whilst Tex Blaisdell, Russ Jones and Maurice Whitman collaborated on the rousing tale of Revolutionary War hero ‘Mad Anthony!’ The first issue concluded with John Severin’s gritty cautionary WWII tale ‘Enemy!’

‘Landscape!’ is the Vietnam tale that caused all that long-ago furore, once more drawn by Orlando, whilst Crandall tried his hand at Minutemen and Lobsterbacks (rebellious Colonials and British regulars to you) in the painfully ironic story of ‘Saratoga!’ and Korea fell under the spotlight in Al McWilliams’ stirring ‘Mig Alley!’

Orlando recaptured the mania of the Spanish-American War of 1898 in ‘Face to Face!’ whilst the dream-team of Torres and Al Williamson delivered a brutal classic of tank warfare in ‘Kasserine Pass!’ and Alex Toth’s design and greytone mastery made ‘Lone Hawk’ as perfect a tale of WWI aerial combat as you will ever see…

There’s another (uncredited) ‘Comics Quiz’ to solve before Severin’s chilling psycho-drama ‘Holding Action’ ended that controversial second issue.

The magazine was already doomed by the time ‘Special Forces!’ from Joe Orlando opened the third issue. It’s gory, blasé, day-in-the-life attitudes nicely counter-pointed the human tragedy and triumph of Crandall’s Civil War shocker ‘Foragers’ and the chilling acceptance of the war-obsessed survivors in ‘U-Boat’; Gene Coloan’s first contribution to this ill-starred gem of a series.

Alex Toth co-wrote the ambiguously post-apocalyptic ‘Survival!’, but the potent reductionist minimalism of the art is all his own, whilst Wally Wood wrote and illustrated a slick, stirring thriller in ‘The Battle of Britain’ – the only tale on which Goodwin had no input, and the first to feature non-American protagonists…

The Indian Wars of 1885 provided Gray Morrow with an ideal opportunity to demonstrate the only true winner of genocide in ‘Water Hole’, and the penultimate issue concluded with a saga of unjustified assumptions in Severin’s beguiling Pacific War parable ‘Souvenirs!’

Gene Colan illustrated the final Vietnam tale ‘Conflict!’, an impassioned tale of racism under fire, George Evans returned to the killer skies of WWI in the bloody history lesson ‘How It Began!’ which leads directly into – visually, at least – the best thing in the book.

Alex Toth revisited the glory of his landmark EC tale ‘F86: Sabre Jet!’ (Frontline Combat #12, 1953; track it down – preferably in black and white – it is utterly indescribable in its pictorial brilliance) with another saga of Jet Age combat: ‘The Edge’ a stark, yet oddly comforting homily.

‘Give and Take’ by hyper-realist Russ Heath is a perfect example of the anti-war philosophy and hauntingly lovely, whilst Wally Wood’s sleek imagery and finishing clearly shows how Hitler’s mad arrogance lost the war by mis-using the incredible jet fighter ‘ME-262!’

Severin’s final contribution is the gallows-grim lark of WWI ‘The Trench!’ whilst Reed Crandall’s immense versatility is displayed in a two-tier tale of legendary holding actions. Co-written by the artist, British troops retreating in Greece in 1941 recall another time dedicated soldiers bought time for their nation, living and dying at ‘Thermopylae!’

This volume’s comic section ends in the only way it can, with the grimly pointless, nasty story of military pragmatism and ruthless necessity, with conscience the first casualty, as German and American troops respectively mop up after a ‘Night Drop!’ illustrated with mordant aplomb by Angelo Torres in his too-infrequently seen wash and tone style.

After the aforementioned interviews by Mike Catron this incredible volume ends with all of Frank Frazetta’s original colour cover paintings.

Blazing Combat is a singular vision, filled with artistic wonders and brimming with some of the best and certainly most impassioned writing the gentle genius Archie Goodwin ever penned in his glittering career. This is probably the only book of war comics that comes anywhere near the power, artistry and impact of our own Charley’s War. Whatever your reasons for loving comics you should read this book – and if you don’t like comics at all, read it anyway and have your mind changed for you…

This collection © 2010 Fantagraphics Books. Contents © 1965, 1966 Warren Publishing renewed and assigned to J. Michael Catron 1993. All other material © the respective individual holders. All rights reserved.

Culture Corner

By Basil Wolverton (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-308-8

Basil Wolverton was one of a kind, a cartoonist and wordsmith of unique skills and imagination and one whose controversial works inspired and delighted many whilst utterly revolting others. Born in Central Point, Oregon on July 9th 1909 he worked as a Vaudeville performer, reporter and cartoonist, and unlike most cartoonists of his time preferred to stay far away from the big city. For most of his life he mailed his work from the rural wilderness of Vancouver, Washington State.

He made his first national cartoon sale at age 16 and began pitching newspaper strips in the late 1920s. A great fan of fantastic fiction he sold Marco of Mars to the Independent Syndicate of New York in 1929 (the company then declined to publish it, citing its similarity to the popular Buck

Equally at home with comedy, horror and adventure fantasy material Wolverton adapted easily to the concept of superheroes, working extensively in the new medium of comic-books, where he produced such gems as Spacehawks and Disk-Eyes the Detective for Circus Comics, the grimly imaginative, (unrelated) sci fi cosmic avenger Spacehawk for Target Comics and Rockman, “Underground Secret Agent” for Timely/Marvel’s USA Comics.

He also produced a seemingly endless supply of comedy features ranging from extended series such as superman/boxing parody ‘Powerhouse Pepper’ to double, single and half-page gag fillers such as ‘Bedtime Bunk’, ‘Culture Quickie’ and ‘Bedtime Banter’.

In 1946 he famously won a national competition held by Al Capp of Li‘l Abner fame to visualise “Lena the Hyena”, that strip’s “ugliest woman in the world”, and during the 1950s space and horror boom produced some of the most imaginative short stories comics have ever seen. He also worked for Mad Magazine.

Wolverton had been a member of Herbert W. Armstrong’s (prototype televangelist of a burgeoning fundamentalist movement) Radio Church of God since 1941. In 1956 he illustrated the founder’s pamphlet ‘1975 in Prophecy’. Two years later Wolverton produced a stunning interpretation of The Book of Revelation Unveiled at Last and began writing and drawing an illustrated six-volume adaptation of the Old Testament entitled ‘The Bible Story: the Story of Man’ which was serialised in the sect’s journal The Plain Truth. In many ways these religious works are his most moving and powerful.

In 1973 he returned to the world of comic books, illustrating more of his memorably comedic grotesques for DC’s Plop!, but suffered a stroke the next year. He died on December 31st 1978.

Now Fantagraphics have collected a spectacular haul of Wolverton’s very best gag feature in a uniquely informative hardback. Culture Corner ran as a surreal and screwball half-page “advice column” in Whiz Comics as well as Marvel Family and The Daisy Handbook from 1946 to 1955 when publisher Fawcett sold off its comic division to Charlton Comics – including the very last unpublished strips. The cartoonist was clearly a meticulous creator, and his extensive files have bequeathed us a once-in-a-lifetime insight into his working practice and the editorial exigencies of the period.

Wolverton sent a fully penciled rough of each proposed episode to Will Lieberson and Virginia Provisiaro (Executive editor and Whiz Comic’s editor respectively) who would comment and commission or reject. The returned pencils would then form the skeleton of the instalment. This lovely madcap tome re-presents the full colour strip with almost all of the original pencil roughs, (diligently stored by Wolverton for decades) as counterpoint and accompaniment, revealing the depth not only of Wolverton’s imagination at play but also his deft facility with design and inking. Also included are some extra roughs and all the extent rejected ideas – some of the most outrageous tomfoolery ever unleashed.

Wolverton was something of an inventor and DIY maestro according to his son Monte’s illuminating introduction, and turned the family home into a dream-house Rube Goldberg or our own Professor Brainstawm would be proud of, and that febrile ingenuity is clearly seen in the advisements of Croucher K. Conk Q.O.C. (Queer Old Coot) as with awesome alliteration and pre-Rap rhyming riffs he suggests solutions for some of life’s least tiresome troubles.

Among the welter of whacky wisdoms imparted some of the most timelessly true are ‘How to Raise Your Eyebrows’, ‘How to Eat your Spaghetti without Getting Wetty’, ‘How to Clap without Mishap’, ‘How to Stop Brooding if your Ears are Protruding’, ‘How to Bow’ and ‘How to Grope for Bathtub Soap’ amongst more than a hundred other sage prescriptions, but whatever your age, alignment or species this crazy chronicle has something that will change your life – and often for the better!

Graphically grotesque, inveterately un-sane and scrupulously screwball, this lexicon of lost laughs is a must have item for anyone in need of a classy cheering up.

© 2010 Fantagraphics Books. All rights reserved.

Tales of the Green Beret Books 1-3

By Robin Moore & Joe Kubert (Blackthorne/Comic Strip Preserves)
ISBNs: 0-932629-36-9, 0-932629-48-2 and 0-932629-59-8

If you’re old enough to remember the Viet Nam conflict you’ll understand when I say that it was a war that changed the World’s perception of America. It marked a growth of civil resistance, student unrest and all-pervasive questioning of previously accepted authority. People thought differently after it ended. Most had their eyes opened: many screwed them tighter shut…

It is something we should be aware of now more than ever…

In 1965 a blockbuster book by novelist Robin Moore rocketed to the top of the bestseller lists, generating a film, a hit song and a highly controversial syndicated comic strip. Moore, possibly one of the very first “Embedded Journalists”, trained with and then accompanied America’s elite combat group, the US Army Special Forces, for two years, and was clearly proud to be counted amongst “The Green Berets.”

The United States Army Special Forces is a Special Operations Force designed to carry out six specific briefs: Unconventional Warfare, Foreign Internal Defense, Special Reconnaissance, Direct Military Action, Hostage Rescue and Counter-Terrorism. Units usually carry out these missions with foreign troops on foreign soil, and their remit also includes Search and Rescue, Peacekeeping and Humanitarian Assistance. In later years they have also specialized in Landmine Removal, Counter-Proliferation, Psychological Operations, Manhunting, and Counter-Drug operations.

The unit was formed in 1952 as part of the US Army Psychological Warfare Division, designated the 10th Special Forces Group at the new Psychological Warfare School (which became the John F. Special Warfare Center and School just before these strips premiered).

During the 1960s they were mostly employed in Southeast Asia, South America and Europe in their Unconventional Warfare capacity. The group motto is “De Oppresso Liber” – To Liberate the Oppressed – and relates to their most frequent function: training and advising foreign indigenous forces.

Oddly, the Green Beret itself is a Scottish tradition dating from World War II, when American OSS agents and US Army Rangers (their equivalent to our Commandos) were trained by the Royal Marines and awarded the prestigious headgear for successfully completing the terrifying Commando Training course.

The hats were banned by the US military, but worn clandestinely – and illegally – until 1961, when President Kennedy personally authorized them as a signal of the caliber of soldier able to win one: “a symbol of excellence, a badge of courage, a mark of distinction in the fight for freedom.”

This gesture forever bound the Green Berets to the memory of the murdered President, as the very first week of the strip stirringly affirms. Tales of the Green Berets comes from a time when the USA led the Free World (now there’s a phrase to pick apart semantically), politicians were generally considered to be open and honest and the CIA were good guys. As usual when nations go to war, idealism is always the first casualty, closely followed by young men and foreign civilians…

Fully aware of the value of favourable PR, the strip was created at the urging of Lt. General William Yarborough, who had sponsored Moore’s research and arduous training. He was the current commander of the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and was keen to see the military displayed in a positive light. After a brief but abortive initial opening, the strip launched as a daily on April 4th and Sunday feature on April 10th 1966 from the Chicago Tribune Syndicate, with scripts by Howard Liss and art from the immensely talented Joe Kubert, whose work on DC’s war comic-books was swiftly making him America’s top war artist.

The tales featured a fictionalised reporter, Chris Tower, who had trained with the Green Berets for an article and was now posted to Vietnam by his newspaper magnate father to report on the war…

In the first adventure here ‘Kidnap Ksor Tonn’ Tower meets up with an old friend and becomes embroiled in an operation to abduct a prominent Viet Cong commander: an impressive tale of jeopardy and double-cross. These stories are surprisingly even-handed in their treatment of the conflict, as ‘Sucker Bait’ sees Tower visiting a jungle village of peasants caught in the middle of the war, with heartbreaking consequences…

This is followed by an exotic view of life in Sin City Saigon entitled ‘Chris Kidnapped’ but the perpetrators aren’t political, merely greedy students looking to make some quick American cash…

The first volume ends with the opening shots in a new conflict as Chris flies to Central America to join ‘Operation Oilspot’…

The saga continues in volume two as Chris becomes deeply involved in an ideological battle between the poor peasants of San Marco and Marxist insurgents. In this war for hearts and minds the Green Berets are only “observers”, teaching and training the local soldiery and helping to construct roads and a bridge, but the insurgents are determined to sabotage the project. Moreover they are not so much dedicated communists as profiteering bandits with an eye to the main chance…

This is an impressive saga full of genuine moral conflict and personal tragedy, whilst the next tale ‘Freedom Flight’, switches locales to East Berlin and genres to pure espionage as Tower and a European team warm up the Cold War to smuggle a family through Checkpoint Charlie for a new life beyond the Iron Curtain. Once more the story breaks at a critical moment, to resume in the third and final volume.

On concluding ‘Freedom Flight’ Tower returns to Southeast Asia to examine the links between South Vietnamese Generals – ostensibly the allies of the Americans – and American organised crime. ‘The Syndicate’ is a tense thriller which shows that the modern problem with Vietnamese drug lords was an open secret even in 1967, and as the spellbinding action simultaneously takes place in Asia and America, clearly reveals that the situation was in large part self-inflicted…

This final volume concludes with the somewhat truncated yet engagingly complex political drama ‘Prince Synoc’, wherein a Special Forces trained son of the King of Thailand apparently defects to a faction of the anti-American, anti-monarchist Thai Army of Liberation.

All is not as it seems though, as Tower and the local Green Berets discover… The third and final volume ends here on a rather inconclusive note with the December 31st 1967 Sunday instalment, but I’m not really surprised that these volumes never finished reprinting the entire strip…

The feature was in strange and controversial straits by this time. Although still popular, it had become an easy target for anti-war protesters, with writing campaigns and even picketing of papers that carried it. Kubert’s usually inspired and grippingly evocative textured art suffered (it looks to me like fellow DC artist Jack Abel has ghosted the inking on more than one occasion), and Joe left the strip in January 1968. His last Sunday page was January 7th and his final daily ran three days later. The series continued for a few months more with veteran Tarzan artist John Celardo as illustrator, before succumbing to the inevitable.

Now however, with the distance of decades, surely it is time for this superb and seminal series to be revisited and given the complete deluxe treatment. These cheap and cheerful Blackthorne editions are scarce, often poorly printed and incomplete. The first abortive tale ‘Viet Cong Cowboy’ was not included and since the stories are so very readable it seems only right to also include the missing Celardo strips. After all, this man was also a major artistic talent and I for one would love to review his later efforts…

One more for the graphic novel wish-list then…
© 1986 Tribune Media Services, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Casey Ruggles: King of the Horsemen/the Prophet Julius/Juan Soto – Daily Strips 1951

By Warren Tufts (Western Winds Productions)

The newspaper strip Casey Ruggles – A Saga of the West used Western motifs and scenarios to tell a broad range of stories stretching from shoot-‘em-up dramas to comedy yarns and even the occasional horror story. The hero was a dynamic ex-cavalry sergeant and sometime US Marshal making his way to California since 1849 to find his fortune (this was the narrative engine of both features until 1950 where daily and Sunday strips divided into separate tales), meeting historical personages like Millard Fillmore, William Fargo, Jean Lafitte and Kit Carson in gripping two-fisted action-adventures.

Warren Tufts was a phenomenally talented illustrator and storyteller born too late. He is best remembered now – if at all – for creating two of the most beautiful western comics strips of all time: Ruggles and the elegiac, iconic Lance.

Sadly he began his career at a time when the glory days of newspaper syndicated strips were gradually giving way to the television age and ostensibly free family home entertainment. Had he been working scant years earlier in adventure’s Golden Age he would undoubtedly be a household name – at least in comics fans’ homes.

Born in Fresno, California on Christmas Day, 1925 Tufts was a superb, meticulous draughtsman with an uncanny grasp of character and a great ear for dialogue whose art was effective and grandiose in the representational manner, favourably compared to both Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant and the best of Alex Raymond. On May 22nd 1949 he began Ruggles as a full-colour Sunday page, and added to it with a black and white daily strip which began on September 19th of that year.

He worked for the United Features Syndicate, who owners of such popular strips as Fritzi Ritz and L’il Abner, and his lavish, expansive tales were crisply told and highly engaging, but Tufts, a compulsive perfectionist, regularly worked 80-hour weeks at the drawing board and consequently often missed deadlines. This led him to use many assistants such as Al Plastino, Rueben Moreira and Edmund Good. Established veterans Nick Cardy and Alex Toth also spent time working as “ghosts” on the series and Cardy’s stint is reproduced in this volume.

Due to a falling-out with his syndicate Tufts left his wonderful western creation in 1954 and Al Carreño continued the feature until its demise in October 1955. The departure came when TV producers wanted to turn the strip into a weekly television show but apparently United Features baulked, suggesting the show would harm the popularity of the strip.

Tufts formed his own syndicate for his next and greatest project, Lance (probably the last great full page Sunday strip and another series crying out for a high-quality collection) before moving peripherally into comic-books, working extensively for West Coast outfit Dell/Gold Key, where he drew various westerns and cowboy TV show tie-ins like Wagon Train, Korak son of Tarzan, The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan and a long run on the Pink Panther comic. Eventually he quit drawing completely, working as an actor, voice-actor and eventually in animation on such shows as Challenge of the Super Friends.

Tufts had a lifelong passion for flying, even building his own ‘planes. In 1982 whilst piloting one he crashed and was killed.

The Pacific Comics Club collected many “lost strip classics” at the start of the 1980s, including six volumes (to my knowledge) of Casey Ruggles adventures. This fourth stupendous black and white volume (approximately 15 inches x 10 inches) contains stories that highlight Tufts’ love of Western history, facility for comedy and innovative willingness to take chances in three tales strip’s third year.

The first is a traditional cowboy story featuring the clandestine return of an old foe. ‘King of the Horseman’ originally ran from 14th May to 23rd June 1951, and saw a mysterious “Sonoran” (in actuality Mexican bandit Joaquin Murietta) challenge all the miners in a gold town to test their riding skills against his own.

Bored and cash rich but not stupid, the gambling fools call in Marshal Ruggles to do the rough riding…

This is a engrossing and informative little gem, softly sardonic and luxuriating in the minutiae of the historical west and cowboy mythology. Art lovers will also have the joy of comparing two master realists as Tufts, ever-strapped to meet his punishing deadlines surrendered the greater part of the tale (all the racing, chasing and action-stunting) to Nick Cardy, keeping only the first and last weeks’ episodes for himself.

This was probably to give himself a little leeway on the next adventure ‘The Prophet Julius’, a dark, clever yarn about a greedy flim-flam man and the eerie power he exerted on an isolated outpost. Running from June 25th to August 11th 1951, the action begins with a shooting star crashing to earth, closely followed by a mesmerising soothsayer terrifying, coercing and even hypnotising miners into handing over their wealth. With even Ruggles helpless the township pull together to craft a solution no Hollywood hack has ever considered…

The six-gun thrills conclude here with another unsung innovation wherein Tufts adapted the documentary/Film Noir style prevalent in the B-Movie gangster films of the time to create a prototype graphic-novel police procedural that would do Rick (A Treasury of Victorian Murder, The Saga of the Bloody Benders) Geary proud.

The predominantly Mexican Vasquez Gang terrorized the simple folk of rural California for almost 15 years with outlaws being captured or killed only to be replaced by ever more bloodthirsty villains  ‘Juan Soto’ was one such and the hunt for him was perfectly incorporated into a clever tale of organised man-hunting by Tufts. Soto was actually killed in a gunfight with Alameda County Sheriff Harry Morse.

Here however the bandit’s increasingly obnoxious depredations draw Ruggles into a posse with five other lawmen who undertake a legendary trek through rugged country, ending in a fearsomely authentic, grimly chilling siege and showdown.

Human intrigue and fallibility, bombastic action and a taste for the bizarre reminiscent of the best John Ford or Raoul Walsh movies make Casey Ruggles the ideal western strip for the discerning modern audience. Westerns are a uniquely perfect vehicle for drama and comedy, and Casey Ruggles is one of the very best produced in America: easily a match for the usually superior European material like Tex or Lieutenant Blueberry.

Surely the beautiful clean-cut lines, chiaroscuric flourishes and sheer artistic imagination and veracity of Warren Tufts can never be truly out of vogue? These great tales are desperately deserving of a wider following, and I’m still praying some canny publisher knows a good thing when he sees it…
© 1950, 1951United Features Syndicate, Inc. Collection © Western Winds Productions. All Rights Reserved.

Dashiell Hammett’s Secret Agent X-9

By Dashiell Hammett, Leslie Charteris and Alex Raymond (iPL)
ISBN: 0-930330-5-6-995

If you’re a fan of crime and adventure fiction or in any way familiar with the 1930’s the names Dashiell Hammett, Leslie Charteris and Alex Raymond will be ones you know. What you might not be so aware of is their brief shared endeavour on one of the most respected and beloved of American newspaper strips.

In the 1930’s the power of newspaper strips to capture and hold vast audiences was unsurpassed (see The Adventurous Decade for further details). When the revolutionary Dick Tracy launched in 1931 for the Chicago Tribune-News Syndicate, it caused a sensation, and gritty, two-fisted crime-busting heroes became the order of the day. Publishers Syndicate released Dan Dunn, Secret Operative 48 as a response in 1933, and the usually quick-acting William Randolph Hearst was forced to respond from the back foot.

He ordered Joe Connelly, head of King Features, to produce their own He-Man G-Man, and to spare no expense. That meant pursuing America’s most popular mystery writer, who luckily for them spent money like water.

Despite having just released his fifth novel The Thin Man (following The Red Harvest, The Dain Curse, The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key), being a regular and popular contributor to Pulps such as Black Mask and having recently established himself as a major Hollywood screenwriter, the ex-Pinkerton detective was a hard-living firebrand who lived “a life on the edge” and could always use more money.

The artist was to be, after a casting call that included Will (Red Barry) Gould and major illustrator Russell Patterson, a young man named Alexander Raymond, who since working as an assistant on such popular strips as Tillie the Toiler, Blondie and Tim Tyler’s Luck, had just been signed by Hearst to produce a new Sunday strip to challenge the science fiction blockbuster Buck Rogers. As well as his own Flash Gordon and Jungle Jim, Raymond would illustrate one of the most high-profile crime strips of the decade.

Secret Agent X-9 launched as a daily strip on January 22nd 1934 and ran until 10th February 1996 having been handled by some of the biggest and most talented names in comics (including a succession of writers using the King Features house nom de plume Robert Storm), artists Charles Flanders, Mel Graff – who renamed him “Secret Agent Corrigan”, Bob Lubbers, Archie Goodwin, Al Williamson and George Evans.

The hero himself was based in large part on Hammett’s first creation “The Continental Op”, who debuted in 1923 and starred in both Red Harvest and The Dain Curse, but there are also powerful touches of Sam Spade and Nick Charles (hero of but not ever ‘The Thin Man’) in the first year of continuities which introduce the ruthless, relentless detective/quasi-official agent of a nameless Federal organisation dedicated and driven to crushing America’s foes and protecting the innocent.

This collection of the first few tumultuous years begins with ‘You’re the Top’: an introductory tale of a criminal mastermind who uses murder and extortion to undermine society – a fairly common plot elevated to near genius by the sharp plotting and dialogue of Hammett, who was allowed to build the tale and unleash narrative twists at his preferred pace. This first saga took seven breathtaking months to unfold, with Raymond’s clean beautiful lines depicting victims and vamps, the highest of society and lowest of dregs and a frankly startling bodycount…

This was followed by ‘The Mystery of the Silent Guns’ wherein the anonymous X-9 comes to the rescue of a kidnapped millionaire industrialist, a breakneck thriller that ranges from the big city to the wild wide-open prairies and features a spectacular mid-air duel of guns and parachutes.

Although his work was impressive, Hammett’s lifestyle and attitude were a continuing problem for Connelly. Deadlines were missed and it was clear that the writer was bored and losing all interest in the strip. At some unspecified stage of ‘The Martyn Case’ Hammett left King Features with Raymond and unnamed writers concluded the tale of young Jill Martyn, a pawn in a custody battle between rich aunt and dissolute, destitute mother. Of course it’s not just a legal struggle once beatings, abduction and machine guns enter the equation…

Hammett plotted ‘The Torch Case Case’ but again other diverse hands brought the tale to fruition, in a smooth a sexy drama that found X-9 joining the FBI to crack a counterfeiting case. It was April 20th 1935. The next two cases, ‘The Iron Claw Case’ and ‘The Egyptian Jewel Case’ were both written by in-house scripters and for at least part of the first tale the art was “ghosted” (probably by Austin Briggs), whilst a major relaunch of the strip, which never really caught on with the general public, was undertaken.

Casting around for another major name the syndicate decided on British writer Leslie Charteris whose roguish 1928 creation Simon Templar: The Saint (in Meet – the Tiger!) had been followed by 14 immensely popular sequels by the time King Features invited him to assume control of X-9 (he wrote another 36 saint sagas between 1936 and 1978) and was poised to take America by storm thanks to a series of B-Movies starring his affable anti-hero.

Charteris added a kind of suave, capable malice to the character that any fan of James Bond will instantly recognise, but he also produced all but a handful of stories before moving on. This book concludes with his first, and the only one which Alex Raymond drew before he too left – to concentrate of the increasingly successful Flash Gordon.

‘The Fixer’ began on November 25th 1935, and saw the anonymous operative hunting down a criminal quartermaster who provided hardware and supplies for the underworld; a fast-paced whodunit stuffed with sleazy thugs and hot dames that literally rockets to an explosive conclusion.

These early tales of crime-busting and gangsters may not have satisfied Citizen Hearst’s ambitions but they were strong enough to fuel more than five decades of captivating action-packed adventure. This little known collection, produced by an academic publisher, proves (to me at least, and you if you can track down a copy) that the time has never been better for a new and complete chronological collection of this legendary strip.
Story and art © 1983 King Features Syndicate, Ltd. All other material © 1983 International Polygonics, Ltd. All rights reserved.

The Definitive Prince Valiant Companion

Compiled by Brian M. Kane, with an introduction by Ray Bradbury (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-305-7

One of the greatest and most successful comic strips of all time, Prince Valiant in the Days of King Arthur launched on Sunday 13th February 1937, a glorious weekly full-colour window not onto the past but rather onto what history should have been. It followed the life and adventures of a refugee boy driven by invaders from his homeland who rose to become one of the mightiest heroes of the age of Camelot.

Created by the incredible Harold “Hal” Foster, the noble lad grew to manhood in a heady sea of wonderment, siring a dynasty and roaming the globe whilst captivating and influencing generations of readers and thousands of creative types in all the arts. There have been films, cartoon series, and all manner of toys, games and collections based the strip – one of the few to have lasted from the thunderous thirties to the present day (over 3750 episodes and counting) and even in these declining days of the newspaper strip as a viable medium it still claims over 300 American papers as its home.

Foster wrote and illustrated the strip until he retired in 1971 when, after auditioning such notables as Wally Wood and Gray Morrow, Big Ben Bolt artist John Cullen Murphy was selected by Foster to continue the legend. In 2004 Cullen retired (he died a month later on July 2nd) and the strip has soldiered on under the extremely talented auspices of Mark Schultz and Gary Gianni ever since.

This glorious book – available in both hardback and softcover – is a complete updating of a 1992 celebratory edition, and features a complete story index and précising of the 3757 adventures to date, including a summary and overview of Val’s life; some key historic interviews and articles on the creators gathered over the years from such disparate sources as Everyday Magazine, the St Louis Dispatch and The Comics Journal covering Foster’s last recorded interview, an examination of Cullen Murphy’s pre-Valiant career, a look at the contribution of both Murphy and uncredited “ghost penciller” Frank Bolle and a brand new appreciation of Schultz and Gianni’s tenure.

A well as a copious and fascinating collection of printed pages, unpublished art, working drawings and candid photographs this superb black and white book also houses a sixteen page full-colour selection of episodes from each creator.

Beautiful, captivating and utterly awe-inspiring Prince Valiant is a World Classic of storytelling, and this book is something no fan should be without. If however you have never experienced the majesty and grandeur of the strip this thoroughly readable and tantalising appreciation might also be your gateway to a life-changing world of wonder and imagination…

Prince Valiant © 2009 King Features Syndicate. All other content and properties © 2009 their respective creators or holders. All rights reserved.