Comics Ad Men

By Many & various, written and compiled by Steven Brower (Fantagraphics Underground Press)
ISBN: 978-1-68396-307-3 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Catalogue of Cartoon Nostalgia… 8/10

From its earliest inception, cartooning has been used to sell: initially ideas or values but inevitably actual products too. In newspapers, magazines and especially comic books the sheer power of narrative – with its ability to create emotional affinities – has been linked to the creation of unforgettable images and characters. When those stories affect the daily lives of generations of readers, the force that they can apply in a commercial arena is almost irresistible…

Any ad exec worth their salt knows instinctively how to catch and hold public attention so as comics developed its star characters and top creators became invaluable resources and many accounts rose and fell on the force of celebrity Brand spokes-doodles rendered by the best artists around – often the very cartoonists creating strips and comic books. Ultimately, many of comics’ greatest were seduced away from the harsh deadlines of strips for the better-paid environs of the marketing moguls. That’s where this delightful collation from design wizard, Creative Director, Educator, art lover and comics afficionado Steven Brower (From Shadow to Light: The Life and Art of Mort Meskin; Golden Age Western Comics; Astounding, Mysterious, Weird and True: The Pulp Art of Comic Book Artists) comes in: a fascinating picture-packed directory of top comics creators leasing their talents to sell stuff…

It’s a guaranteed nostalgia-fest: I know of many – including star industry folk and Plain Old me – who have bought assorted Golden Age comics just because they carry CC Beck Captain Tootsie ad pages or Twinkies shills concocted and populated by Marvel and DC’s top guns…

Delivering an effusive and erudite essay and lecture on the history and development of the phenomenon – liberally accompanied by dozens of captivating illustration examples – Brower makes a compelling case for further study and successfully jingles the heartstrings of comics devotees with a delicious roster of astoundingly impressive artists clandestinely operating in the real world of commerce. Did you know that Golden Age Green Lantern originator Martin Nodell also created the Pillsbury Doughboy? You do now, and so much more can be yours to bemuse your chums…

The big draw is a carefully curated and stunning Gallery of historical examples comprising star turns and their famous creations. Here Sydney Smith co-opts The Gumps to sell “Funy Frostys”, E.C. Segar’s Popeye crew tout Mazda Lamp lightbulbs and Al Capp’s Li’l Abner recommends Cream of Wheat.

The parade of stars continues with Mel Graf (Secret Agent X-9; Captain Easy), Frank Robbins (Jonny Hazard; Batman, The Invaders), Vic Herman (Little Dot; Elsie the Cow), Clifford McBride (Napoleon and Uncle Elby), Sheldon Moldoff (Hawkman; Batman), Basil Wolverton (Spacehawk; Powerhouse Pepper; Mad), Noel Sickles (Scorchy Smith) and  Jacob Landau (Military Comics; Captain America).

Some artists’ styles were perfect for changing times and were in high demand. Otto Soglow (The Little King) and Dik Browne (Hagar the Horrible; Hi and Lois) were highly sought after with Browne being represented here by solo strips and in collaboration with Gill Fox (Torchy; Hi and Lois) and Roland Coe (The Little Scouts), VIP – AKA Virgil Partch – (Big George), Bill Williams (Henry Aldrich; Millie the Model), Hank Ketcham (Dennis the Menace – the American one), Marvin Stein (Justice Traps the Guilty; Young Love) and Paul Fung (Dumb Dora).

There were even agencies repping many illustrators, and a copious sampling of Young & Rubicam and Johnstone & Cushing alumni precede beguiling work from Stan Drake (The Heart of Juliet Jones; Blondie; Kelly Green), Lou Fine (Doll Man; The Ray; The Spirit; Black Condor), Creig Flessel (The Sandman, Detective Comics; Pep Morgan; Superboy), Jack Betts (Britannia Mews), Bob Bugg (The New Neighbors; Popular Comics), Kelly Freas (assorted covers), Alex Kotzky (Blackhawk; Apartment 3-G), George Roussos (Air Wave; Batman; Crypt of Terror; Fantastic Four) and Tom Scheuer (Flash Gordon; My Love Story).

Neal Adams (Batman; X-Men; Ben Casey) actually set up his own agency Continuity Associates, employing many contemporaries such as Dick Ayers (Human Torch, Ghost Rider; Sgt. Fury  and his Howling Commandos) and talented newcomers but there was always a demand for older veterans like Mort Meskin (Sheena; Johnny Quick; Vigilante; Mark Merlin), Joe Simon (Captain America; The Fly; Fighting American; Boy Commandos) and Wallace Wood (T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents; Daredevil; Weird Science; Mad; Witzend), all seen here in a wealth of amazing art.

Wrapping up the with a final push of superb selling points are briefs filled by Ken Penders (Sonic the Hedgehog), some Twinkies moments courtesy of John Romita Snr. (Amazing Spider-Man) and Ross Andru & Mike Esposito (Wonder Woman; The War that Time Forgot; The Metal Men; Amazing Spider-Man), a drinks campaign designed to reach modern youth featuring Daniel Clowes (Lloyd Llewellyn; Eightball; Ghost World; Patience) and an abundance of superb stuff from the mightily prolific Jack Davis (Mad; Frontline Combat; Rawhide Kid).

Available in paperback or instantly gratifying digital editions and stuffed with astounding images, fascinating lost ephemera and mouth-watering bouts of nostalgia, Comics Ad Men is an absolute visual delight no fan of pop culture, comics or narrative illustration will be able to resist.
© 2019 Steven Brower and Fantagraphics Books. All art and trademarks © & ™ & their respective copyright and trademark holders. Essay © Steven Brower. All rights reserved.