Buz Sawyer volume 4: Zazarof’s Revenge


By Roy Crane, with Henry G. “Hank” Schlensker & Edwin Granberry (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-975-2 (HB)

Modern comics evolved from newspaper strips: pictorial features that were, until relatively recently, utterly ubiquitous. Hugely popular with the public and highly valued by publishers who used them as a weapon to secure sales and increase circulation, strips seemed to find their only opposition in blinkered local editors who often resented the low brow art form, which cut into potential ad space and regularly drew complaint letters from cranks…

It’s virtually impossible for us today to understand the overwhelming allure and power of the comic strip – especially from the Great Depression to the end of the 1950s. With limited television, broadcast radio far from universal and movie shows at best a weekly treat for most folk, household entertainment was mostly derived from the comics sections of daily and especially Sunday Newspapers. “The Funnies” were universally enjoyed recreation for millions who were well served by a fantastic variety and incredible quality of graphic sagas and humorous episodes.

From the start comedy was king; hence our terms “Funnies” and “Comics”. From these jest and stunt beginnings – blending silent movie slapstick, outrageous fantasy and vaudeville antics – came an entertaining mutant hybrid: Roy Crane’s Wash Tubbs.

Debuting in April 1924, Washington Tubbs II was a comedic, gag-a-day strip which evolved into a globe-girdling adventure serial. For years, Crane spun addictive high-quality pictorial yarns – until his introduction of moody swashbuckler Captain Easy ushered in the age of adventure strips with the landmark episode for 6th May, 1929.

This led to a Sunday colour page which was possibly the most compelling and visually imaginative of the entire Golden Age of Newspaper strips (see Roy Crane’s Captain Easy, Soldier of Fortune: The Complete Sunday Newspaper Strips volumes 1-4). Improving almost minute by minute, it benefited from Crane’s relentless quest for perfection. His fabulously imaginative compositional masterpieces attained a timeless immediacy that made each page a unified piece of sequential art. The influence of his pages can be seen in the works of near-contemporaries like Hergé, giants-in-waiting such as Charles Schulz or comic book masters Alex Toth, John Severin and many more.

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

They just didn’t lift the artist any more so he stopped making them. At the height of his powers, Crane walked away from the astounding Captain Easy Sunday page; concentrating on the daily feature until his contract expired in 1943 whereupon he left United Features: lured away by that grandee of strip poachers William Randolph Hearst.

The result was an aviator strip set in then-ongoing World War II: Buz Sawyer.

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

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

The wartime strip was – and remains – a marvel of authenticity: portraying not just action and drama of the locale and situation but crucially also capturing the quiet, dull hours of training, routine and desperate larks between the serious business of killing and staying alive. When the war ended the action-loving duo – plus fellow pilot/girl-chasing competitor Chili Harrison – all went looking for work that satisfied their thirst for action and adventure…

Crane had mastered popular entertainment tastes, blending adventure with drama and sophisticated soap opera, all leavened with raucous comedy in a seamless procession of unmissable daily episodes. He and his team of assistants – which over decades comprised co-writers Ed “Doc” Granberry, Clark Haas and Al Wenzel, and artists Hank Schlensker, Joel King, Ralph Lane, Dan Heilman, Hi Mankin & Bill Wright – soldiered on under relentless deadline pressure, producing an authentic and exotic funny romantic thriller rendered in his stark signature style as well as a prerequisite full-colour Sunday page.

This fourth stout and sturdy hardcover edition is a mostly monochrome tome re-presenting more magnificent strip shenanigans starring a dynamic All-American good guy, but now Buz is just another fading war hero: albeit admittedly a globetrotting, troubleshooting one and a newlywed husband to boot.

Having – after much kerfuffle, procrastination, intrigue, bloodshed, sexy skulduggery and delay – finally married extremely understanding childhood sweetheart Christy Jameson, our clean-cut boy-next-door then dragged her into his regularly perilous and frequently lethal working world as prime problem-solver for Frontier Oil: a company with fingers in many international pies and one most modern readers will find hard to consider “the Good Guys”…

These strips – made in collaboration with Granberry & Hank Schlensker – cover the societally turbulent period spanning July 1949 to June 1952, as America leaned hard into its dreams of Exceptionalism and enjoyed domestic boom times while embracing it’s self-appointed role as the World’s Policeman. Crane and his creative laboured long, hard, often acrimonious hours to produce each daily strip; all beguilingly rendered in black-&-white through Crane’s masterly techniques employing line art and craftint (a tricky mechanical monochrome patterning effect which added greys and halftones to produce miraculous depths and moods to the superb base drawing) but the toll was heavy on personnel and feelings.

Before the ten self-contained tales here kick off, heavily-illustrated preliminary prose piece ‘The Three of Us are a Team’ (‘remarks at the New York Banshee Society’ from transcripts donated to Syracuse University) revisits Crane’s acceptance speech on winning the 1961 Silver Lady Award as determined by a collation of contemporary communications executives. Effusive and reminiscent, it sees him give his partners all the credit for the hard work in crafting the feature…

Buz Sawyer began on November 1st 1943 and ran until 1989. Crane officially retired with the April 21st 1977 episode (dying on July 7th) while it continued under Granberry, Schlensker, Haas, Wenzel and John Celardo until cancelation on October 7th 1989.

The story resumes with an example of contemporary trends…

Chimpanzees were becoming a popular story addition for most media as the 1940s ended (just look at movies or comic books) and ‘Monkey Business’ finds our happy couple back in the USA after an African honeymoon (of sorts) which left the them owners of a young chimp named Junior…

Anticipating decades of future sitcoms, the tale details how Junior plays up during a critical dinner party/holiday weekend held by Sawyer’s boss Colonel Harrison but the resulting debacle at a swish soiree on Harrison’s palatial estate fails to impress potential business partner Mr Tidley Bragg. A cheeky excuse for manic screwball comedy and social gaffes, the chaos generates explosive hilarity, humiliation and Buz’s sacking before fate intervenes to show everyone that Junior was a boisterous blessing in disguise…

Swiftly rehired, Buz heads south, encountering ‘Revolution’ (September 19th 1949 – January 18th 1950) in a Central American republic. Frontier Oil was seeking an oil concession, but apparently their agent – Barstain – had played a double game. Before long, Buz is using his war experiences to lead a counter revolution to save democracy…

January 20th- June 17th offers a grimly chilling change of pace as ‘Buz Alone’ sees Christy and her husband on a well-earned vacation at a Florida honeymoon cottage. Tragically, danger is never far from them, and the brief idyll is shattered after a nature-watching boat trip leaves them stranded on a sandbar with no food, water, shelter or prospect of rescue.

A true champion, Buz survives a gruelling swim to the mainland and returns in a seaplane only to find three men on the sandbar and no trace of Christy. When he gets agitated, he’s accused of making it all up and – if she ever existed – doing away with the woman…

Beaten up when he tries to search their boat, Buz is left to pick up the pieces and track down Christy. In his hunger for clues, he is manipulated by a woman seeking a new husband – and someone to remove her current one – before eventually clashing with vengeful old enemy Harry Sparrow. At no time does he ever get near his missing better half…

While he flounders, a comely, capable lady with no memory is picked up on the mainland before losing herself amidst the sleazy local underworld. With the police now assisting, Buz sets out on the fresh trail, aided by trusty pal Sweeney. After more trauma and tribulation, Christy is found, but it’s not the girl Buz married yet – not by a long shot…

A return to lighter intrigue and enterprise comes when spoiled debutante ‘Diana’ (June 19th – November 24th) makes Daddy find her a job. Unluckily for Buz, Remington Chase is a bigwig at Frontier and his bored hellion of a daughter likes the idea of being Sawyer’s secretary – or at least the idea of Sawyer…

Even debonair Chili Harrison can’t sway her aim and when Buz “escapes” into work – despatched to Iron Curtain nation Sovmania just when he and Christy began looking at homes to buy – Miss Chase infuriatingly follows. Negotiating with the Soviets is tricky enough, but when it’s a US corporation demanding the communists hand back wells and refineries they illegally annexed and expropriated, Sawyer knows he can’t win and may end up mysteriously deceased. It’s no surprise to find Diana draws attention and danger like a magnet, but her response when the oppressors decide to arrest them is a life-changing revelation.

Spectacular spy games give way to a lighter interlude when Buz reunites with Christy and they babysit a parrot named ‘William Shakespeare’ (November 24th 1950-January 6th 1951). The beloved baby of a poetry professor, with an astounding talent for repeating what he hears, the bird proves to be even more trouble that their chimp was…

Clearly qualified in policing difficult customers, Buz is then assigned to locate a wandering landowner with 6,000 prime acres to lease. ‘Wish Jones’ (January 8th to April 19th) is old, homely, rich, romantic, suggestible and (suddenly) married to exotic dancer Taffy Fawn. However, he hasn’t signed the contracts Frontier needs, leaving Buz playing catch across all the love nests of the South Pacific. The fixer’s greatest asset is Taffy herself, who never thought wedded bliss and matchless wealth included so much sand, birds or bugs. His biggest problem is that even desert island paradises have crooks, radios and newspapers…

Another episode of animal husbandry catastrophes – this time a dachshund and a voracious baby heron – leads implausibly to a sojourn in ‘Alaska’ (26th April – August 22nd) with Sawyer undercover as John Singer.

While seeking a geologist’s killers, he’s also acting as courier for the Government in a serious and solid spy escapade worthy of Alfred Hitchcock with abductions, misreported deaths, murderous sailors, devious twins, fake relatives and hidden uranium reserves all in play, with Buz’s survival skills pushed to the limit before his mission is accomplished.

In dire need of relaxation, the reunited Mr & Mrs Sawyer trust to fate and pluck a name out of an atlas for a vacation. They land in a lakeside resort boasting peace and quiet but dreary ‘Doldrums’ (August 23rd – September 29th) is soon a pandemonium of envy and excitement as bored couples seek to spice up their passionless lives by emulating the infamous, glamorous newcomers…

Eponymous epic ‘Zazarof’s Revenge’ spans October 1st 1951-January 10th 1952, opening with a global sabotage campaign against Frontier, leading Buz to Switzerland where there’s no doubt of mystery man Igor Zazarof’s guilt, but apparently no way to find or face him.

Ultimately, persistence and charm break down the villain’s obvious pawn Neri, whilst all attempts to bribe, frame, frighten or kill the American fail, leading to an extended and brutal duel to the death on a mountain peak as the only way to deal with Sawyer…

We conclude for now with home-grown bad men ‘The Hawks Boys’ (January 10th – June 19th) terrorising and sabotaging a Frontier installation in Utah. As assault escalates to murder, Buz discovers why the Hawks’ – already well-paid for the oil rights to their land – are doing everything they can to force the company to pull out. What could be worth more than oil and what won’t they do to keep their secret?

Completing this vivid vintage venture is a wry glimpse of Crane’s early days. With text written by Jeet Heer, ‘A Cartoonist’s Travels’ offers a brief gallery of cartoons about bums, hoboes, tramps and voyagers, with the artist drawing upon his own youthful experiences as an itinerant bindlestiff and drifter…

This a sublime slice of compelling comics wonder is an ideal way to discover or reconnect with Crane’s second magnum opus. Bold, daring, funny and astonishingly enthralling, these episodic exploits influenced generations of modern cartoonists, illustrators, comics creators and storytellers. The series ranks amongst the very greatest strip cartoon features ever created: always delivering comics tale-telling unforgettable, unmissable and utterly irresistible. Try it and see for yourself.
Buz Sawyer: Zazarof’s Revenge © 2016 Fantagraphics Books. All Buz Sawyer strips © 2016 King Features Syndicate, Inc. All other material © the respective copyright holders. All rights reserved.

The Cisco Kid™ 


By Rod Reed & José Luis Salinas (Ken Pierce Books) 

ISBN: 0-912277-00-9 (PB) 

As with so many classic mass-media heroes, The Cisco Kid began as charismatic villain. Created by O. Henry for short prose tale “The Caballero’s Way”, he first appeared in Everybody’s Magazine in July 1907, and was included in the author’s anthological collection Heart of the West, which was published in the same year. 

Gone but not forgotten, The Kid returned and was gradually rehabilitated via a series of 27 films spanning 1914-1950; a radio serial running from 1942-1956; a one shot comic book in 1944 and – most crucially – a TV series (the first ever shot in colour) comprising 156 episodes, which spanned 1950-1956. Those latter media milestones in particular spawned a Dell Comics series (41 issues from 1950-1958) and informed a spectacular and beautiful comic strip licensed by King Features Syndicate which ran in numerous newspapers and across the world from 1951 to 1968. 

The hero is a dashing Mexican roaming the American west like the Lone Ranger, righting wrongs for no appreciable reason or reward. His comedy sidekick Pancho is fat, jolly, and eternally anxious, but also smart, deceptively brave and extremely capable: a rare example of positive depictions of Latino characters at that time or even by most modern examples… 

In the end, every effort of so many creators across the mass-communications divide couldn’t much help as increasingly polarized views about minorities pretty much cemented a certain view of Mexican characters in American public opinion in the 1960s and 1970, but at least our guys always were heroes, not low-grade villains, and lazy language stereotyping was kept to an absolute minimum.  

Cisco and Pancho spoke floridly, but never like Speedy Gonzales…  

This strip feature, like so many beautiful examples of western adventuring, has been all but forgotten today, but holds up remarkably well in terms of modern sensibilities …and as I’ve indicated, it is so very, very beautifully drawn.  

This impossible-to-find collection comes courtesy of pioneering comics archivist Ken Pierce, whose one-man campaign to preserve the best of newspaper strips throughout the 1970 and 1980s (Abbie an’ Slats; Axa; Danielle; Fred Kida’s Valkyrie) resulted this slim single volume of monochrome daily episodes, fronted by writer Rod Reed’s evocative Introduction. Reed was a veteran golden age scripter whose best work was for Fawcett and Quality Comics, and in the five stories re-presented here (covering January 17th to May 4th 1950), he ingeniously blends traditional family entertainment/action with wry wit and a devilishly wicked sense of the absurd… 

The writing is top notch but the true joy comes from the stunning draughtsmanship and graphic empathy of the illustrator. José Luis Salinas (February 11, 1908-January10, 1985) was Argentinian, beginning as an advertising artist before moving into comics El Tony and Paginas de Columba. In 1936 he created his first strip. Hernán el Corsario in Patoruzu was followed by many more classic adventure escapades. In 1949, he began working for American enterprise King Features Syndicate, who eventually partnered him with Reed. Their partnership – and the strip – lasted eighteen years, and apparently they never ever met or even corresponded even once… 

Individual storylines very much mirror TV episodes of any western of the era – like Hopalong Cassidy, Champion the Wonder Horse; Gunsmoke, Bonanza or the aforementioned Lone Ranger and all the usual tropes are in play, but thanks to Reed’s deft touches and Salinas’ skill, what might to us seem cliched, still sparkles with verve and vivacity… 

The dramas launches with ‘The First Story’ as the heroes help feisty rancher Lucy Baker uncover a swindle perpetrated by the local judge. His malfeasance is initially uncovered because he won’t allow “the wimmen-folk” vote on his new dam project, but all too soon it devolves into murder plots, frantic horse-chases and plenty of gunplay… 

‘The Deadly Stage Ride’ then sees the nomads save a failing stage coach company by replacing the driver and shotgun guard. Even if they had known sinister mastermind The Jagged Dagger was behind the campaign of sabotage and robbery, it would not have stopped them doing the right thing…  

Humour is paramount in ‘The Artist’ as French painter François Palette arrives, determined to capture the action and glamour of the Wild West and its great heroes – like Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and The Cisco Kid – only to become the target of a fugitive Barbary Bill: a bullying thug who didn’t like his portrait… 

The Latin Lawgivers stumble across a dying man and carry out his deathbed wish to save an innocent man from execution in ‘The Harmonica Mistake’ before this delicious but dated delight closes down with a heartwarming mystery as Cisco and Pancho aid a poor widow and her son when outlaws kidnap the family pet. It seems there’s lost loot somewhere which old Spot can track in ‘Treasure Dog’…    

Swashbuckling thrills in the flamboyant style of Errol Flynn and Gene Kelly, combining the character dynamics of Don Quixote (& Sancho Panza ) with Holmes & Watson and Batman and Robin, these merry light-adventure yarns are so very moreish, and it’s well past time one of the specialist archival outfits like Hermes Press or IDW brought them all back to us… 

The Cisco Kid™ © 1983 Doubleday & Company. Editorial content and arrangement © 1983 Rod Reed. All rights reserved.

Manhunter – The Deluxe Edition 


By Archie Goodwin & Walter Simonson & various John Workman (DC Comics) 
ISBN: 978-1-77950-751-8 (HB/Digital edition) 

One of the most celebrated superhero series in comics history, Manhunter catapulted young Walt Simonson to the front ranks of creators, revolutionised the way dramatic adventures were told and still remains the most lauded back-up strip ever produced. Concocted by genial genius Archie Goodwin as a supporting back-up strip in Detective Comics (#437-443, October-November 1973 to October-November 1974) the seven episodes – a mere 68 pages – garnered six Academy of Comic Book Arts Awards during its far too brief run. 

In case you’re wondering they were: Best Writer of the Year 1973 – Archie Goodwin; Best Short Story of the Year 1973 for ‘The Himalayan Incident’; Outstanding New Talent of the Year 1973 – Walter Simonson; Best Short Story of the Year 1974 for ‘Cathedral Perilous’; Best Feature Length Story of the Year 1974 for the conclusion ‘Götterdämmerung’ and Best Writer of the Year 1974 – Archie Goodwin. 

Paul Kirk was a big game hunter and part-time costumed mystery man before and during World War II. Becoming a dirty jobs specialist for the Allies, he lost all love of life and died in a hunting accident in 1946. Decades later, he seemingly resurfaced, coming to the attention of Interpol agent Christine St. Clair. Thinking him no more than an identity thief, she soon uncovered an incredible plot by a cadre of the World’s greatest scientists who had combined over decades into an organisation to assume control of the planet once they realised that man now had the means to destroy it. 

Since the end of the WWII The Council had infiltrated all corridors of power, making huge technological advances (such as stealing the hero’s individuality by cloning him into an army of superior, rapid-healing soldiers), slowly achieving their goals with no-one the wiser. The returned Paul Kirk, however, had upset their plans and was intent on thwarting their ultimate goals… 

This slim tome reprints the much-missed Mr. Goodwin’s foreword from the 1979 black-&-white album Manhunter: the Complete Saga before gathering in one sublime collection Kirk’s entire tragic quest to regain his humanity and dignity.  

Coloured by Klaus Janson and lettered by Ben Oda, Joe Letterese, Alan Kupperberg & Annette Kawecki, it tells of St. Clair and Kirk’s first meeting in ‘The Himalayan Incident’, her realisation that all is not as it seems in ‘The Manhunter File’ and their revelatory alliance beginning with ‘The Resurrection of Paul Kirk.’ 

Now fully a part of Kirk’s crusade Christine discovered just how wide and deep the Council’s influence ran in ‘Rebellion!’ before beginning the end-game in the incredible ‘Cathedral Perilous’ and gathering one last ally in ‘To Duel the Master’… 

With all the pieces in play for a cataclysmic confrontation, events take a strange misstep as Batman stumbles into the plot, inadvertently threatening to hand the Council ultimate victory. ‘Götterdämmerung’ fully lived up to its title and wrapped up the saga of Paul Kirk with consummate flair and high emotion. It was a superb triumph and perplexing conundrum for decades to come… 

In an industry notorious for putting profit before aesthetics, the pressure to revive such a well-beloved character was enormous, but Goodwin & Simonson were adamant that unless they could come up with an idea that remained true to the spirit and conclusion of the original, Manhunter would not be seen again. 

Although the creators were as good as their word DC did weaken a few times. Kirk clones featured in the Secret Society of Super-Villains and The Power Company, but they were mere shabby exploitations of the original. Eventually, however, an idea occurred and the old conspirators concocted something feasible and didn’t debase the original conclusion. Archie provided a plot, and Walter began to prepare the strip. 

After years of valiant struggle the master plotter finally succumbed to the cancer that had been killing him. Anybody who had ever met Archie Goodwin will understand the void his death created. He was irreplaceable. 

Without a script the project seemed doomed until Simonson’s wife Louise suggested that it be drawn and run without words: a silent tribute and last hurrah for a true hero. Manhunter: the Final Chapter reunites the characters and brings the masterpiece to a solid, sound resolution. Now it really is all over… 

This Deluxe Edition offers a touching afterword – with some extremely early character sketches – by Walter and a gallery of further art treats: the cover and a pin-up from Detective Comics #443; covers from reprint editions Manhunter Special #1 (May 1984), Manhunter: The Special Edition (1999), Tales of The Batman: Archie Goodwin (2013), Manhunter: the Complete Saga (1979) and the Manhunter entry from Who’s Who #14. 

This book represents a perfect moment of creative brilliance and an undisputed zenith in comics storytelling. This is a tale no comic fan can afford to be without. 
© 1973, 1974, 1999, 2013, 2020 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved. 

Barnaby volume 3 


By Crockett Johnson with Ted Ferro & Jack Morley (Fantagraphics Books) 
ISBN: 978-1-60699-823-6 (HB/Digital editions) 

This is one of those rare books worthy of two reviews. So, if you’re in a hurry… 

Buy Barnaby volume 3 – and all the rest – right now. It’s one of the five best newspaper comic strips of all time and this lavish hardcover/digital compilation has lots of fascinating extras. If you harbour any yearnings for the lost joys of childish wonder and the suspicious glee in catching out adults trying to pull a fast one, you would be crazy to miss this book… 

However, if you’re still here and need a little more time to decide… 

The once-huge range and breadth of newspaper strips – continuity drama, adventure strips or informational/sports inspired – has all but faded away as the 21st century proceeds. Cartoon strips aren’t a dying art form though: merely moved on to less valuable property in cyber-space. Check out the magnificent and resurgent return of Berke Breathed’s Bloom County – as released whenever he wants on Facebook…  

Back in the tangible world of typesetting, if a paper actually still runs any strips – as opposed to editorial cartoons – chances are they will be of the episodic variety typified by reprints of Charles Shultz’s Peanuts or the latest hot movie/media spin-off rather than series like Doonesbury or Prince Valiant which demand a little conspicuous consistency and regular attendance from the readership.  

You can describe the most popular strips such as Garfield or Hagar the Horrible as single-idea pieces with a set-up, delivery and punch-line, all rendered in a sparse, pared-down-to-basics drawing style. In that they’re nothing new and there’s nothing wrong any of that ilk on their own terms. 

Narrative impetus comes from the unchanging characters themselves, and a building of gag-upon-gag in extended themes. The advantage to the newspaper was always obvious. If you like a strip it encourages you to buy the paper. If you miss a day or two, you can return fresh at any time having, in real terms, missed nothing. 

Such was not always the case. Once upon a time the daily “funny” – comedic or otherwise – was a crucial circulation preserver and builder, with lush, lavish and magnificently rendered fantasies or romances rubbing shoulders with thrilling, moody masterpieces of crime, war, sci-fi and everyday melodrama, and the always-unmissable delights of legion of humour strips which maintained and sustained an avid, devoted following. 

And eventually came Barnaby, which in many ways bridged the gap between then and now. 

On April 20th 1942, with America at war for the second time in 25 years, liberal New York tabloid PM began running a kids’ strip which was simultaneously the most whimsically addicting, socially seditious and ferociously smart satire since Al Capp’s Li’l Abner – another utter innocent left to the mercy of scurrilous worldly influences. 

Crockett Johnson’s outlandish 4-panel daily was the product of a perfectionist who didn’t particularly care for comics, but who – according to celebrated strip historian Ron Goulart – just wanted steady employment… 

David Johnson Leisk (October 20th 1906-July 11th 1975) was an ardent socialist, passionate anti-fascist, gifted artisan and brilliant designer who had spent much of his working life as a commercial artist, Editor and Art Director. Born in New York City and raised in the outer wilds of Queens when it was still semi-rural (in Flushing Meadows near the slag heaps which would eventually house two New York World’s Fairs), “Dave” studied art at Cooper Union (for the Advancement of Science and Art) and New York University before leaving early to support his widowed mother.  

This entailed embarking upon a hand-to-mouth career drawing and constructing department-store advertising. He supplemented his income with occasional cartoons to magazines like Collier’s before becoming an Art Editor for magazine publisher McGraw-Hill. He also started a moderately successful, “silent” strip called The Little Man with the Eyes. 

Johnson divorced his first wife in 1939 and moved out of the city to Connecticut, to share an ocean-side home with student (and eventual bride) Ruth Krauss. Ceaselessly looking to create that steady something, almost by accident he devised a masterpiece of comics narrative… 

However, if friend Charles Martin hadn’t seen a prototype Barnaby half-page lying around the house, it might never have existed. Thankfully, Martin hijacked the sample, parlaying it into a regular feature in prestigious highbrow leftist PM simply by showing the scrap to the paper’s Comics Editor Hannah Baker. Among her other notable finds was a strip by Theodor (“Dr.”) Seuss Geisel which would run contiguously in the same periodical. Despite Johnson’s initial reticence, within a year Barnaby was the new darling of the intelligentsia… 

Soon came book collections, talk of a Radio show (in 1946 it was adapted as a stage play), a quarterly magazine and rave reviews in Time, Newsweek and Life. A small but rabid fan-base ranged from politicians and smart set paragons like President and First Lady Roosevelt, Vice-President Henry Wallace, Rockwell Kent, William Rose Benet and Lois Untermeyer to ultra-cool celebrities such as Duke Ellington, Dorothy Parker, W. C. Fields and legendary New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. Of course, the last two might only have checking the paper because the undisputed, unsavoury star of the strip was a scurrilous if fanciful amalgam of them both… 

Not since George Herriman’s Krazy Kat had popular culture so infiltrated the halls of the mighty, whilst largely passing way over the heads of the masses or without troubling the Funnies sections of mass-circulation papers. Over its 10-year run (April 1942 to February 1952), Barnaby was only syndicated to 64 papers nationally – a combined circulation of just over five and a half million – but it kept Crockett (a childhood nickname) and Ruth in relative comfort whilst America’s Great & Good constantly agitated on the kid’s behalf. 

What more do you need to know?  

One dark night, during an air raid drill, a little boy wished for a Fairy Godmother and something strange and disreputable fell in through his window… 

Barnaby Baxter is a smart, ingenuous and scrupulously honest pre-schooler and his ardent wish was to be an Air Raid Warden like his dad. Instead he was “adopted” by a short, portly, pompous, distinctly unsavoury and wholly discreditable windbag with pink pixie wings. 

Installing himself as the lad’s “Fairy Godfather”, Jackeen J. O’Malley was a card carrying-member of the Elves, Gnomes, Leprechauns and Little Men’s Chowder and Marching Society – although he hadn’t paid dues in years. A lazier, more self-aggrandizing, mooching old glutton and probable soak could not be found anywhere. To be fair, although he certainly frequented taverns, he only ever raided the Baxter’s icebox, pantry and humidor, never their drinks cabinet…  

Due more to intransigence than evidence – there’s always plenty of physical proof, debris and fallout whenever O’Malley has been around – Barnaby’s parents adamantly refuse to believe in an ungainly, insalubrious sprite, whose continued presence hopelessly complicates the sweet boy’s life. Their abiding fear is that Barnaby was cursed with Too Much Imagination… 

In earlier episodes, O’Malley became implausibly – and almost overnight – an unseen and reclusive public Man of the Hour, preposterously translating that dubious cachet into a political career by accidentally becoming a patsy for a corrupt political machine. In even more unlikely circumstances O’Malley was elected to Congress… 

This strand gave staunchly socialist cynic Johnson ample opportunity to lampoon the electoral system, pundits and public. As usual, Barnaby’s folks perpetually overruled their boy: assertively assuring him the O’Malley grown-ups had elected was not a little man with pink wings… 

Despite looking like a fraud – he’s almost never seen using his magic and always has one of Dad’s stolen panatela cigars as a substitute wand – J. J. O’Malley is the real deal: he’s just incredibly lazy, greedy, arrogant and inept. He does – sort of – grant Barnaby’s wishes… but never in ways that might be anticipated… 

Once O’Malley got his foot in the door – or through the bedroom window – a succession of bizarre characters also turned up to baffle and bewilder poor Barnaby and Jane Shultz, the sensible little girl next door who was also privileged to perceive the pompous pixie.  

Even Barnaby’s new dog Gorgon was an oddity. The pooch could talk – but never when adults were around, and only with such staggering dullness that everyone listening wished him as mute as other mutts. More mythical oddballs and irregulars included timid ghost Gus; Atlas the Giant (a 2-foot tall, pint-sized colossus unimpressive until he got out his slide-rule to demonstrate that he was, in fact, a Mental Giant); Gridley the Salamander (a “Fire Pixey” who couldn’t raise a spark even if supplied with matches and gasoline); water hating sea god Davey Jones and puny Puritan pixie Cousin Myles O’Malley.  

The greatest of these wry creations was Launcelot McSnoyd: invisible Leprechaun and O’Malley’s personal gadfly, persistently proffering harsh, ribald counterpoints and home truths to the Godfather’s self-laudatory pronouncements… 

Johnson continually expanded his bizarre cast of gremlins, ogres, ghosts, policemen, bankers, crooks, financiers and stranger personages – all of whom could see O’Malley – while the unyieldingly faithful lad’s parents were always too busy and obdurately certain the Fairy and all his ilk were unhealthy, unwanted, juvenile fabrications. 

The officious elf’s schemes grew evermore fanciful. He was a boxing impresario, attempted to have constructed two utterly unnecessary hydroelectric dams, wrote the definitive text on Pixie Anthropology and usurped running the factory managed by Barnaby’s father. After that O’Malley campaigned in the then-ongoing Presidential Election, tried crime-busting and even took a turn as a most improbable Wall Street wizard and publishing mogul.  

This third tipsy-turvy treasury opens with hearty appreciation from award-winning cartoonist Jeff Smith in the Foreword before Nathalie op de Beeck’s ‘Notes on a Haunted Childhood’ details the relationship of the author to his signature character, after which the whimsical wonderment resumes with the strips spanning January 1st 1946 to December 31st 1947. The serialised silliness opens with a delicious and delirious assault on the growing phenomenon of radio quiz shows as ‘Our Next Contestant, Mr. O’Malley’ (January 2nd -February 2nd). Seeking finance for making his prospective movie masterpiece the overconfident oaf inveigles his way onto the “Detect and Collect Show” but things don’t go quite his way… 

His overall scheme remains becoming ‘J. Darryl O’Malley, Movie Mogul’ (February 4th – March 16th) but when a suitable text for his magnum opus cannot be found he opts to pen his own bestselling book first. However, since he’s such a busy magnate, he eventually gets Gus to ghost-write for him while he secures stars. A simple phone call to Hollywood creates a storm of chaos in the glitzy land where Dreams Come True, scripts are judged by weight and page count and a confidant lie is the ultimate weapon… 

As sparks fly in Hollywood, the elf has already moved on. Taking umbrage at the senior Baxter’s perpetual rubbishing of his very existence ‘Professor O’Malley’ (March 16th – April 4th) seeks to prove his bona fides through atomic age Science and arranges a lecture on mythological folk, inviting Gridley, McSnoyd, Atlas, Gus and more. Tragically, a mix-up in scheduling venues soon scuppers the plan… 

As a result of the confusion, the Baxter and Schultz pantries and iceboxes took particularly significant hits and the astounded, anxious parents call in the police to track down ‘The Refrigerator Bandit’ (April 5th – May 11th). Filled with civic outrage, O’Malley joins the hunt, even organising a unique posse of his comrades, but somehow that only leads to greater atrocities on already abused larders… and now extends to cigar humidors…  

Midsummer madness is sparked when Mr. Baxter is cajoled into joining the office baseball team and the ever-helpful Fairy Godfather decides to offer the benefits of his vast coaching experience in ‘O’Malley at the Bat’ (May 13th – June 22nd). Although dad is unaware, the pixey and his team are in there, pitching for him… 

When Gorgon begins feeling enclosed and claustrophobic, hungry for a place of his own, the sensible suggestion of a dog house rapidly escalates into another major human headache and the absolutely unnecessary solution of ‘The J. J. O’Malley Housing Project’ (June 24th – August 24th). At a time when America faced an accommodation crisis, the Pixie’s posturing and proposal of “the Baxter Plan” soon triggers a land rush and city scandal with a totally bewildered Pa Baxter suddenly seconded to the City School Board. What a surprise then, when the always unseen winged wonder decides to open ‘The O’Malley School’ (August 26th – November 2nd) and radically reform the way teaching works… 

If you’re of an historical mien, during this strip, Johnson’s assistants Ted Ferro and Jack Morley began signing strips even as the teaching tale migrated into a canny poke at progressive methodology and bean-counting civic administrators seeking to save cash and instigate cut-rate education… 

Trend-based commerce and rampant consumerism fell under the satirical spotlight next as, in the last days of post-war shortages and rationing, Mr. Baxter applied for a new car. His chances seem slim but O’Malley has a plan – involving raffle tickets – and soon ‘The New Packomobile’ (November 4th – December 14th) arrives, albeit as the result of skulduggery, subterfuge and venal opportunism on the part of an automobile manufacturer. Of course, it doesn’t actually reach the perplexed parent the way any human intended…  

With Christmas bearing down on everyone, a discussion of seasonal demands on limited finances neatly segues – via a chemistry set gift – into an exploration of ‘The Atomic Age’ (December 16th 1946 – March 1st 1947). It’s triggered  by the Pixie noticing a marked lack of that most modern element Uranium in the toy box. His subsequent search almost creates as much carnage and catastrophe as an actual thermonuclear detonation, particularly after he finds a mallet perfect for splitting atoms…. 

Th mayhem magnifies when – despite all the Fairy Godfather’s efforts to avoid him – his disreputable reprobate “black sheep” brother ‘Orville O’Malley’ (March 3rd – May 24th) hits town and pays a visit. He seems very interested in stock market investments and the family finances… 

‘Top Dog’ (May 26th – June 28th) then focusses on Gorgon’s aspirations as the mouthy mutt refuses to enter a local kids’ pet show after which the absentee O’Malley returns just in time for the Baxter’s annual seaside excursion, and a brush with nervous teen lovers Bob and Angelica who need the assistance of an unseen coach to confirm their passion. Happily there’s ‘The Mysterious Troubadour’ (June 30th – August 23rd) and his bizarre backing band of spooks, fairies and kibitzers. Romantic melodies carry, however, and soon the Godfather is engaged himself…   

On the group’s return the chastened, still single sprite delves into domesticity, remodelling the Baxter abode and descending inevitably to the disaster via ‘Mr. O’Malley’s Book of Household Management’ (August 25th – September 13th) before being drawn back onto the world stage as humans pollute the sacred dell that is the nation home of all the assorted creatures of fancy and provoking a declaration of war against mankind… 

Lacking a sense of reason or proportion the inexorable march to conflict is exacerbated by the little Peoples’ quest for ‘Sylvania’s Secret Weapon’ (September 15th – December 23rd) as the year closes, storm clouds gather and talks cease. It’s a cliffhanging pause to ponder as ‘Sylvania Vs The United Nations’ (December 24th – 31st) barely begins before the comics time runs out. Don’t fret though: everything will continue and conclude in the next book…  

More elucidatory content follows in education scholar and Professor of English Philip Nel’s fact-filled, scene-setting, picture-packed Afterword essay ‘Escape Artist?’ which explores how and why Johnson turned the feature over to Ferro and Morley whilst deconstructing the series included is Coulton Waugh’s contemporary treatise ‘In Every Sense a Major Creation’ excerpted from The Comics (1947) before Nel returns with strip commentary, context and background in ‘The Elves, Leprechauns, Gnomes, and Little Men’s Chowder & Marching Society: a Handy Pocket Guide’… 

Intellectually raucous, riotous, sublimely surreal and adorably absurd, the razor-sharp whimsy of the strip is instantly captivating, and the laconic charm of its writing is irresistible, but the lasting legacy of this ground-breaking strip is the sparse line-work that reduces images to near-technical drawings, unwavering line-weights and solid swathes of black that define space and depth by practically eliminating it, without ever obscuring the fluid warmth and humanity of the characters. Almost every modern strip cartoon follows the principles laid down here by a man who purportedly disliked the medium… 

The major difference between then and now should also be noted, however. Johnson despised doing shoddy work, or short-changing his audience. His strips – always self-contained – built on the previous episode without needing to re-reference it, and contained three to four times as much text as its contemporaries. It’s a sign of the author’s ability that the extra wordage was never unnecessary, and uniquely readable, blending storybook clarity, the snappy pace of “Screwball” comedy films and the contemporary rhythms and idiom of authors like Damon Runyan or Dashiel Hammett. 

Johnson managed this miracle by type-setting the dialogue and pasting up the strips himself – primarily in Futura Medium Italic but with effective forays into other fonts for dramatic or comedic effect. No educational vigilante could claim Barnaby harmed children’s reading abilities by confusing the tykes with non-standard letter-forms (a charge levelled at comics as late as the turn of this century), and the device also allowed him to maintain an easy, elegant, effective balance of black and white rendering the deliciously diagrammatic art light, airy, fresh and accessible. 

During 1946-1947, Johnson surrendered the strip to pursue a career illustrating children’s book such as Constance J. Foster’s This Rich World: The Story of Money, but eventually he returned, crafting more magic before permanently retiring Barnaby in 1952 to concentrate on his books. When Ruth graduated she became a successful children’s writer and they collaborated on four tomes, The Carrot Seed (1945), How to Make an Earthquake, Is This You? and The Happy Egg.  

These days Johnson is best known for his seven Harold books which began in 1955 with Harold and the Purple Crayon. 

During a global conflagration and the ideological Cold War that followed, with heroes and villains aplenty, where no comic page could top the daily headlines for thrills, drama and heartbreak, Barnaby was an absolute panacea to the horrors without ever ignoring or escaping them. The entire glorious confection that is Barnaby is all about our relationship with imagination. This is not a strip about childhood fantasy. The theme here, beloved by both parents and children alike, is that grown-ups don’t listen to kids enough, and that they certainly don’t know everything. 

For far too long Barnaby was a lost masterpiece. It is influential, ground-breaking and a shining classic of the form. You are all the poorer for not knowing it, and should move mountains to change that situation. I’m not kidding. 

Liberally illustrated throughout with sketches, roughs, photos and advertising materials as well as Credits, Thank Yous and more, this big hardback book of joy is a welcome addition to 21st century bookshelves – most especially yours… 
Barnaby volume 3 and all Barnaby images © 2016 the Estate of Ruth Krauss. The Foreword is © 2016 Jeff Smith. “Notes on a Haunted Childhood” © 2016 Nathalie op de Beeck. The Afterword and Handy Pocket Guide are © 2016 Philip Nel

Green Eggs and Maakies


By Tony Millionaire (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-618-8 (HB/Digital edition)

As a career and lifestyle, cartooning has far more than its share of individuals with a unique perspective on life. Ronald Searle, Charles Addams, George Herriman, Gerald Scarfe, Rick Geary, Steve Bell, Berke Breathed, Ralph Steadman, Bill Watterson, Matt Groening, Gary Larson – the list is potentially endless.

Perhaps it’s the power to create entire carefully curated and scrupulously sculptured worlds coupled with the constant catharsis of vented spleen that so colours their work – whether they paint or draw – or maybe it’s simply the crucible of constant deadlines that makes their efforts so addictive and effective.

Tony Millionaire loves to draw and does it very, very well: referencing classical art, vintage children’s book illustration and an eclectic mix of pioneering comic strip draughtsmen like George McManus, Rudolph Dirks, Cliff Sterrett, Frank Willard, Harold Gray, Elzie Segar and that George Herriman guy. These influences, styles and sensibilities he seamlessly blends with the vision of European engravings masters from the “legitimate” side of the pictorial storytelling racket. The result is eye-popping…

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

He has a variety of graphical strings to his bow – such as his own coterie of books for children like the superbly stirring Billy Hazelnuts and Sock Monkey series; animation triumphs and the brilliant if disturbing weekly strip Maakies – which recounts the riotously vulgar and absurdly surreal adventures of Irish monkey Uncle Gabby and fellow dissolute über-alcoholic/nautical adventurer Drinky Crow.

They are abetted but never aided by a peculiarly twisted, off-kilter cast of reprobates, antagonists and confrontational well-wishers such as Drunken Cop, old Wachtel, The Captain’s Daughter and avian Aunt Phoebe whilst constantly opposed by nefarious Gallic crocodile The Frenchman. Or not. Sometimes. It depends…

Launching in February 1994 in The New York Press, the strip is now widely syndicated in US alternative newspapers such as LA Weekly and The Stranger and globally in comics magazines like Linus and Rocky. There was even an animated series on Adult Swim.

Since continuity usually plays second fiddle to the avalanche of inventive ideas and outré action the strips can be read in almost any order, and the debauched drunkenness, manic ultra-violence in the manner of the best Tom & Jerry or Itchy & Scratchy cartoons, acerbic view of sexuality and deep core of existentialist angst still finds a welcome with Slackers, Laggards, the un-Christian and all those scurrilous lost Generations since X… and everyone addicted to bad taste tomfoolery. This lovely lush landscape collection from 2013 compiles two years of impossibly wonderful weirdness and plumbs new depths of daft depravity proving clearly time cannot wither his infinitely grotesque variety one little bit…

In the grand tradition of the earliest US newspaper cartoon features, each episode comes with a linked mini-strip running across the foot of the strip – although often that link is quite hard to ascertain. Nominally and notionally based in a naval setting of rousing rip-roaring 19th century sea-faring situations, replete with maritime monsters and stunning vistas, the dark-and-bitter comical instalments vary from staggeringly rude and crude through absolutely hysterical to conceptually impenetrable.

Be warned: Millionaire’s gags are utterly unfettered by bounds of taste or simplistic acquiescence to wholesome fun-squelching decency.

He often promotes his other creative endeavours on Maakies pages and digresses into autobiography and personal rants, brings in guest creators to mess with his toys and even invites the readership to contribute: ideas, pictures, objects of communal interest – especially any tattoos his dedicated readership can be enticed/bothered to submit. This penetratingly incisive, witty and often poignant cartoon arena is his playground and if you don’t like it, leave… but quietly please, ‘cause there’s a hangover going on here most days…

Green Eggs and Maakies offers, in starkly indisputable monochrome, more of the wonderful same with such spit-take, eye-watering, drinks-coming-out-of-your-nose moments as how mermaids and ugly fish are created, fun with snakes, the thoughts of ‘Real Ladies of the Dog Park’; arguably the best Superman fart joke ever, and so much more, scraped like barnacles from the edges of all time and space and history.

Moreover, in a positive frenzy of public-spirited beneficence, this book features ‘Maakies Womb Portraits’; returning visits of ‘Dr. Dubel, Helicopter Faith Healer’; easily absorbed lessons on ‘How to Drink’; scatological marriage proposals, a running commentary on ‘Married Days’ and general sex advice; revelations of ‘The Accidental Sobrietist’; secrets of such self-surgical procedures as removing impacted belly hair or how to conduct an auto-splenectomy; an ode to ‘The Robust Human Liver’ and more bright ideas from ‘The Universal Moon Genius’.

All the timeless favourite themes Millionaire specialises in are on show, and the usual variations of sordid sexual encounters, ghastly interspecies progeny, assorted single entendres, bodily function faux pas and gory death-scenes share space with some of literature’s greatest poets and sots – who never knew what hit them…

There are even a few continued tales starring ‘Noah’s Ark’, barbarian dwarf ‘Klaus Santa, son of Kleas, son of Wachtel’ and two sets of cut-out, colour-and-keep Christmas tree ornaments to make any seasonal pine a domestic no-go zone…

If you’re not easily upset this is a spectacularly funny and rewarding strip, one of the most constantly creative and entertaining in existence today, and if you can thrive on gorge-rousing gags and mind-bending rumination this is an experience you simply cannot deny yourself.

If you’re still not a fan, Green Eggs and Maakies is the perfect opportunity to become one, and if you’re already converted it’s an ideal gift for them that isn’t…
© 2013 Tony Millionaire. All rights reserved.

Popeye volume 1: Olive Oyl & Her Sweety (The E.C. Segar Popeye Sundays


By Elzie Crisler Segar with Sergio Ponchione, Cathy Malkasian & various(Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1- 68396-462-9 (PB/digital edition)

Popeye popped up in the Thimble Theatre comic strip for January 17th 1929. The strip was an unassuming feature that debuted on 19th December 1919: one of many newspaper cartoon funnies to parody, burlesque and mimic the era’s silent  movies serials. Its more successful forebears included C.W. Kahles’ Hairbreadth Harry and Ed Wheelan’s Midget Movies / Minute Movies .

These all used a repertory company of characters to play out generic adventures firmly based on those expressive cinema antics. Thimble Theatre’s cast included Nana and Cole Oyl, their gawky daughter Olive, diminutive-but-pushy son Castor, and Horace Hamgravy, Olive’s sappy, would-be beau.

The series ticked along for a decade, competent and unassuming, with Castor and Ham Gravy (as he became) tumbling through get-rich-quick schemes, fear-free adventures and simple gag situations until September 10th 1928, when explorer uncle Lubry Kent Oyl gave Castor a present from his latest exploration of Africa: a hand-reared Whiffle Hen – most fabulous of all birds. It was the start of something groundbreaking.

Whiffle Hens are troublesome, incredibly rare and possessed of fantastic powers, but after months of inspired hokum and slapsick shenanigans, Castor was resigned to Bernice – for that was the hen’s name – when a series of increasingly peculiar circumstances brought him into contention with the ruthless Mr. Fadewell, world’s greatest gambler and king of the gaming resort of ‘Dice Island’.

Bernice clearly affected writer/artist E.C. Segar, because his strip increasingly became a playground of frantic, compelling action and comedy during this period…

When Castor and Ham discovered that everybody wanted the Whiffle Hen because she could bestow infallible good luck, they sailed for Dice Island to win every penny from its lavish casinos. Sister Olive wanted to come along but the boys planned to leave her behind once their vessel was ready to sail. It was 16th January 1929…

The next day, in the 108th instalment of the saga, a bluff, irascible, ignorant, itinerant and exceeding ugly one-eyed old sailor was hired by the pair to man the boat they had rented, and the world was introduced to one of the most iconic and memorable characters ever conceived. By sheer, surly willpower, Popeye won the hearts and minds of readers: his no-nonsense, grumbling simplicity and dubious appeal enchanting the public until by the end of the tale, the walk-on had taken up full residency. He would eventually make the strip his own…

The Sailor Man even affably bulldozed his way onto the full-colour Sunday Pages which form the main course of this curated collection spanning 2nd March 1930 through February 28th  1932.

This paperback is the first of four that will contain the entire Segar Sunday canon and is designed to be stored in a forthcoming slipcase. Spiffy as that sounds, the wondrous stories are also available in digital editions if you want to think of ecology or mitigate age and muscle strain in your spinach-deprived muskles…

Since many papers only carried dailies or Sundays, not necessarily both, a system of differentiated storylines developed early in American publishing, and when Popeye finally made his belated appearance, he was already a fairly well-developed character.

Thus, Segar concentrated on more family-friendly gags – and eventually continued mini-sagas – and it was here that the Popeye/Olive Oyl modern romance began: a series of encounters full of bile, intransigence, repressed hostility, jealousy, mind games and passion which usually ended in raised voices and scintillating cartoon violence – and they are still as riotously funny now as then. Olive was well ahead of her time: the serendipitous stick insect knew her mind and always gave better than she got…

Preceding the vintage treats, this tome also offers some modern and very lovely laudatory comic strips in Sergio (DKW; Grotesque; Memorabilia) Ponchione’s ‘Have a Segar’ and Cathy (Percy Gloom; Eartha) Malkasian’s ‘Oomph – A Popeye Short’: each offering their unique interpretations of Segar’s now meta-real cast and how they changed the world…

When the wondrous weekly full-page instalments start we see Castor Oyl heading home at the heart of the Depression accompanied by Ham Gravy who is appalled to find a ghastly sailor man pitching woo at his (presumed) sweet patootie. When the rival suitors clash, it’s Olive who has the final word …and throws the last punch!

From there onwards, in done-in-one gag instalments an unlikely but enduring romance blossomed (withered, bloomed, withered some more, hit cold snaps and early harvests – you get the idea…) as Olive pursued her man and Popeye vacillated between ignoring her and moving mountains to impress her. As she always kept her options open, he spent a lot of time fighting off – literally – her other gentlemen callers…

A mercurial creature, the maiden miss Oyl spent a lot of her time trying to stop her beau’s battles – tricky, as he spent his time ashore as an extremely successful “sprize fighter” – but would batter mercilessly any floozy who cast cow eyes at the devil-may-care matelot…

In these early formative Sundays, we see how Castor becomes Popeye’s manager and how originally-philanthropic millionaire Mr. Kilph moves from eager backer to demented arch enemy, willing to pay any price to see Popeye pummelled. Opponents include husky two-fisted guys with names like Bearcat, Mr. Spar, Kid Sledge, Joe Barnacle, Kid Smack, Kid Jolt, The Bullet, Johnny Brawn, an actual giant dubbed Tinearo and even a trained gorilla (Kid Klutch), but none ever win and Kilph goes crazier and crazier…

Among many timeless supporting characters, mega moocher J. Wellington Wimpy debuts here as a lazy and corrupt ring referee in extended, trenchant and scathingly witty sequences about boxing. Rowdy, slapstick cartoon violence is at a premium – family values were different then – but Segar’s worldly, probing satire and Popeye’s beguiling (but relative) innocence and lack of experience keeps the entire affair in hilarious perspective whilst making him an unlikely and lovable waif, albeit one eternally at odds with cops and rich folk…

We see softer sides of the sailor-man as he repeatedly gives away multiple purses – and even houses – to widows and “orphinks”, and his rebellious core with numerous jail sentences self-commuted. Popeye always escapes, but – being scrupulously fair-minded – never fails to turn himself in when his latest escapade ends.

After a riot of fun, bonkers pugilism and mad love, this initial outing closes with the Sailor Man’s bold disclosure that the secret of his strength is spinach. Cue a riot at Rough-House’s seedy diner…

Segar famously considered himself an inferior draughtsman – most of the world disagreed and still does – but his ability to weave a yarn was unquestioned, and grew to astounding and epic proportions in these strips.

Week after week he was creating the syllabary and graphic lexicon of a brand-new art-form: inventing narrative tricks and beats that generations of artists and writers would use in their own cartoon creations.

Popeye is fast approaching his centenary and well deserves his place as a world icon. How many comics characters are still enjoying new adventures 93 years after their first? These volumes are the perfect way to celebrate the genius and mastery of E.C. Segar and his brilliantly flawed superman. These are books that belong in every home and library.
This edition of Popeye Volume 1: Olive Oyl and Her Sweety is © 2021 Fantagraphics Books Inc. All Segar comics and drawings © 2021 King Features Syndicate. Inc./ ™Hearst Holdings, Inc. Strips provided by Bill Blackbeard and his San Francisco Academy of Comic Art, “Have a Segar!” © Sergio Ponchione. Translation © Jamie Richards. “Oomph” © Cathy Malkasian. All rights reserved.

E.C. Segar’s Popeye volume 1: “I Yam What I Yam!”


By Elzie Crisler Segar (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-779-7 (HB)

HAPPY BIRTHDAY POPEYE!

The incredible Sailor-Man first shumbled onto the world stage in comic strip Thimble Theatre on January 17th 1929. Even though last year Fantagraphics began rereleasing this material in smaller less copious volumes – which I’ll also be reviewing – this initial colossal collection is probably my favourite vintage book ever and I mourn much that it’s out of print and unavailable digitally. I live in hope though…

Thimble Theatre was an unassuming comic strip which began on 19th December 1919; one of many newspaper features that parodied/burlesqued/mimicked the era’s (silent) movies. Its more successful forebears included C.W. Kahles’ Hairbreadth Harry and Ed Wheelan’s Midget Movies (later renamed Minute Movies).

These all used a repertory company of characters to play out generic adventures firmly based on those expressive cinema antics. Thimble Theatre’s cast included Nana and Cole Oyl, their gawky daughter Olive, diminutive-but-pushy son Castor, and Horace Hamgravy, Olive’s sappy would-be beau.

The series ticked along for a decade, competent and unassuming, with Castor and Ham Gravy, as he became, tumbling through get-rich-quick schemes, gentle adventures and simple gag situations until September 10th 1928 (the first strip reprinted in this astonishingly lavish and beautiful collection), when explorer uncle Lubry Kent Oyl gave Castor a present from his latest exploration of Africa: a hand-reared Whiffle Hen – most fabulous of all birds. It was the start of something groundbreaking.

As eny fule kno Whiffle Hens are troublesome, incredibly rare and possessed of fantastic powers, but after months of inspired hokum and slapsick shenanigans, Castor was resigned to Bernice – for that was the hen’s name – when a series of increasingly peculiar circumstances brought him into contention with the ruthless Mr. Fadewell, world’s greatest gambler and king of the gaming resort of ‘Dice Island’.

Bernice clearly affected writer/artist E.C. Segar, because his strip increasingly became a playground of frantic, compelling action and comedy during this period…

When Castor and Ham discovered that everybody wanted the Whiffle Hen because she could bestow infallible good luck, they sailed for Dice Island to win every penny from its lavish casinos. Sister Olive wanted to come along but the boys planned to leave her behind once their vessel was ready to sail. It was 16th January 1929…

The next day, in the 108th instalment of the saga, a bluff, irascible, ignorant, itinerant and exceeding ugly one-eyed old sailor was hired by the pair to man the boat they had rented, and the world was introduced to one of the most iconic and memorable characters ever conceived. By sheer, surly willpower, Popeye won the hearts and minds of readers: his no-nonsense, grumbling simplicity and dubious appeal enchanting the public until by the end of the tale, the walk-on had taken up full residency. He would eventually make the strip his own…

The journey to Dice Island was a terrible one: Olive had stowed away, and Popeye – already doing the work of twelve men – did not like her. After many travails the power of Bernice succeeded and Castor bankrupted Dice Island, but as they sailed for home with their millions Fadewell and his murderous associate Snork hunted them across the oceans. Before long, Popeye settled their hash too, almost at the cost of his life…

Once home, their newfound wealth quickly led Castor, Ham and Olive into more trouble, with carpetbaggers, conmen and ne’er-do-wells constantly circling, and before long they lost all their money (a common occurrence for them), but one they thing they couldn’t lose was their sea-dog tag-along. The public – and Segar himself – were besotted with the unlovable, belligerent old goat. After an absence of 32 episodes Popeye shambled back on stage, and he stayed for good.

Although not yet the paramour of Olive, Popeye increasingly took Ham’s place as a foil for sharp-talking, pompous Castor Oyl, and before long they were all having adventures together. After escaping jail at the start of ‘The Black Barnacle’ (December 11th 1929) they found themselves aboard an empty ship and at the start of a golden age of comic strip magic…

Segar famously considered himself an inferior draughtsman – most of the world disagreed and still does – but his ability to weave a yarn was unquestioned, and it grew to astounding and epic proportions in these strips.

Day by day he was creating the syllabary and graphic lexicon of a brand-new art-form, inventing narrative tricks and beats that a generation of artists and writers would use in their own works, and he did it while being scary, thrilling and funny all at once.

‘The Black Barnacle’ introduced the dire menace of the hideous Sea-Hag – one of the greatest villains in fiction – and the scenes of her advancing in misty darkness upon our sleeping heroes are still the most effective I’ve seen in all my years…

This incredible tale leads seamlessly into diamond-stealing, kidnappings, spurned loves, an African excursion and the introduction of wealthy Mr. Kilph, whose do-gooding propensities lead Castor and Popeye into plenty of trouble, beginning with the eerie science fiction thriller ‘The Mystery of Brownstone Hill’ and the return of the nefarious Snork, who almost murders the salty old seadog a second time…

The black and white dailies section ends with ‘The Wilson Mystery’ as Castor and Popeye set up their own detective agency – something that would become a common strip convention and the perfect maguffin to keep adventurers tumbling along. Even Mickey Mouse donned metaphoric deerstalker and magnifying glass for much of his own strip service…

These superb and colossal hardcover albums (200 pages and 368 mm by 268 mm) are augmented with fascinating articles and essays; including testimonial remembrances from famous cartoonists – Jules Feiffer in this first volume – and accompanied by the relevant full colour Sunday pages from the same period.

Here then are the more gag-oriented complete tales from 2nd March 1930 through February 22nd 1931, including the “topper” Sappo.

A topper was a small mini-strip that was run above the main feature on a Sunday page. Some were connected to the main strip, but many were just extraneous filler. They were used so that individual editors could remove them if their particular periodical had non-standard page requirements. Originally entitled The 5:15, Sappo was a surreal domestic comedy gag strip created by Segar in 1924 which became peculiarly entwined with the Sunday Thimble Theatre as the 1930s unfolded – and it’s a strip long overdue for consideration on its own unique merits….

Since many papers only carried dailies or Sundays, not necessarily both, a system of differentiated storylines developed early in American publishing, and when Popeye finally made his belated appearance, he was already a fairly well-developed character. Thus, Segar concentrated on more family-friendly gags – and eventually continued mini-sagas – and it was here that the Popeye/Olive Oyl modern romance began: a series of encounters full of bile, intransigence, repressed hostility, jealousy and passion which usually ended in raised voices and scintillating cartoon violence – and they are still as riotously funny now as then.

We saw softer sides of the sailor-man and, when Castor and Mr. Kilph realised how good Popeye was at boxing, an extended, trenchant and scathingly witty sequence about the sport of prize-fighting began. Again, cartoon violence was at a premium – family values were different then – but Segar’s worldly, probing satire and Popeye’s beguiling (but relative) innocence and lack of experience kept the entire affair in hilarious perspective whilst making him an unlikely and lovable waif.

Popeye is fast approaching his centenary and still deserves his place as a world icon. How many comics characters are still enjoying new adventures 93 years after their first? These magnificent volumes are the perfect way to celebrate the genius and mastery of EC Segar and his brilliantly imperfect superman. These are books that every home and library should have.

© 2006 Fantagraphics Books Inc. All comics and drawings © 2006 King Features Inc. All rights reserved.

Beano and Dandy Gift Book 2022- Arty Farty!


By Dudley D. Watkins, Allan Morley, Reg Carter, Davy Law, Bill Holroyd, Leo Baxendale, Ken Reid, Eric Roberts, James Crichton, Paddy Brennan, and many & various (DC Thomson & Co)
ISBN: 978-1-84535-856-3 (HB)

This splendidly oversized (225 x 300mm) 144 page hardback compilation rightly glories in the incredible wealth of ebullient creativity that paraded through the flimsy, colourful pages of The Beano and The Dandy during a particularly bleak and fraught period in British history… aren’t they all? Tragically, neither it nor its companion volumes are available digitally yet, but hope springs ever eternal…

Until it folded and was briefly reborn as a digital publication on 4th December 2012, The Dandy was the third-longest running comic in the world (behind Italy’s Il Giornalino – launched in 1924 – and America’s Detective Comics in March 1937).

Premiering on December 4th 1937, The Dandy broke the mould of its traditional British predecessors by using word balloons and captions rather than narrative blocks of text under sequential picture frames. A huge success, it was followed eight months – on July 30th 1938 – later by The Beano and together they utterly revolutionised the way children’s publications looked and, most importantly, how they were read.

Over decades the “terrible twins” spawned a bevy of unforgettable and beloved household names who delighted countless avid and devoted readers, and the unmissable end of year celebrations were graced with bumper bonanzas of the comics’ weekly stars in extended stories in magnificent hardback annuals.

This particularly tome is a collation of strips examining “Art” and a superb tribute to Celtic creativity, packed literally cover-to-cover with brilliant strips, with the mirth starting on the inside front with a rather psychedelic and fourth-wall rending confrontation between The Bash Street Kids and the ever-interventionist “Beano/Dandy artist” actually illustrated by David Sutherland, I suspect.

Sadly, as usual none of the writers are named and precious few of the artists, but I’ve offered a best guess as to whom we should thank, and of course would be so very happy if anybody could confirm or deny my suppositions…

When not in monochrome or full colour, DC Thomson titles were always extremely inventive in using their two-colour printing plate format. Way back when, most annuals and many comics were jazzed up by a wonderful “half-colour” process British publishers used to keep costs down. This was done by printing sections (“Signatures”) of the books with only two plates, such as Cyan (Blue) and Magenta (Red) or Yellow and Black. The sheer versatility and colour range provided was simply astounding…

This book shows that pagination skill over and over again in strips that exploit the print process and deftly subordinate it to the narratives. What splendid fellows their printers must have been to go to all that extra effort…

Here and now though, the picture-in-picture gag cover of Dandy Annual 1971 – a Korky the Cat visual pun by James Crichton or possibly Richard Nixon – segues into a monochrome Big Eggo strip from Reg Carter before indisputable key man Dudley D. Watkins shines in black, white and red with magical lad Peter Piper (from short-lived junior title The Magic Comic) animating pictures at an exhibition before Good King Coke (He’s Stoney Broke) seeks fame in a frame thanks to early art and orange tints from Eric Roberts.

Also from The Magic Comic comes Dolly Dimple – Not So Simple: a monochrome romp by Allan Morley that leads to an Orange section starting with Julius Sneezer the Sneezing Caesar (Morley); Lord Snooty, by the incredibly prolific Watkins, detailing an art heist from an early annual, after which Morley renders more magic with Sammy’s Super Rubberand posh poseur Swanky Lanky Liz – by Charles Holt – makes more enemies with a school painting competition…

Morley’s Old Ma Murphy the Strong-Arm School-Ma’rm gets away with what we’d deem child abuse in her art class before three Dennis the Menace strips from David Law prove that chaos is an art. They’re followed by a drawing lesson with Minnie the Minx (by Jim Petrie?) and a Law full colour Beryl the Peril strip he did for a Topper Annual with the girly menace trying her hand at photography before we enjoy some black, white and red poetry-appreciation piece from a Beano Book The Bash Street Kids extended episode by Sutherland. It precedes a classic Desperate Dan diversion where he paints the town – guess what hue? – and Korky’s Catty Dictionary by Robert Nixon.

A red-toned double bill of Roger the Dodger japes by Ken Reid neatly diverts to fantastic crime as an extended (orange-flavoured) Captain Woosh caper sees the wily jetpack bandit again outwitted by good-hearted errand boy Terry Ball in a stunning Dandy Annual exploit from Charles Grigg, after which Sutherland triumphs in a pan-toned (black, red, yellow and white) classic starring The Bash Steet Kids and Teacher…

Following colourful puzzle pages ‘Blank Looks’ and ‘You Can Draw Me!’, Law’s Dennis the Menace plays ‘Pranks with Paint!’ and shares ‘Drawings by Dennis’ before we all go green with Watkins’ Desperate Dan and enjoy ‘Arty-Crafty!’and ‘Crafty Arty!’ hijinks with perilous Beryl…

Winker Watson gets a fresh look – courtesy of Terry Bave, I believe – as the wily waif interrupts a school painting chore before Ken H. Harrison’s blue period sees Harry and his Hippo get the snapping bug before the Bash Street Dogs of Pup Parade (Nigel Parkinson?) get their portraits done and Bill Holroyd’s robot rascal Brassneck saves the school play – from surly teacher Mr. Snodgrass…

Minnie the Minx endures a multi-coloured assault from a mischievous Beano artist (Tom Paterson?) before Dennis regrets ‘Making his Mark’ as a prelude to more full colour fun from Bill Ritchie’s Baby Crockett and Gordon Bell’s Colonel Blink, before Pup Parade with the Bash Street Dogs resorts to orange tints for a kennel painting prank…

Advancing print technology finally catches up and the remainder of the collection is all full-colour, beginning with Neighbourhood Witch as a little sorceress gets too interested in the family tree, after which Ritchie’s love-starved Smittengoes to extraordinary lengths to find a girlfriend…

Harrison’s Lord Snooty makes no friends when he voluntarily takes up the trumpet, whilst Paterson’s Little Larry truly turns heads (away) with his candid snaps before Bully Beef and Chips (Wayne Thompson?) clash over painted portraits whilst Dennis decrees ‘It’s a Draw’ and The Bash Street Kids romp in extended mayhem looking for cash rewards in ‘A Load of Junk’…

Robot toy manipulator General Jumbo then gets some highly specialised new units to win a painting competition, before activity page ‘Be a Dandy Artist’ segues into a Korky curated museum visit before ‘Quick on the Draw with Ivy the Terrible’ (by Lew Stringer?) ends the tour with a far more accessible lesson learned.

As you leave the volume please be sure to enjoy Sutherland’s classic Beano Book 1971 cover and denouement of the frontispiece saga that opened this extravaganza, and don’t forget to tip your reviewer…

A marvel of nostalgia and timeless comics wonder, the true magic of this collection is the brilliant art and stories by a host of talents that have literally made Britons who they are today, and bravo to DC Thomson for letting them out to run amok once again.
© DCT Consumer Products (UK) 2021 Ltd.

Calling Dick Tracy!â„¢ volume 1


By Mike Curtis, Joe Staton & various (Rabbit Hole)
ISBN: 978-0-930645-11-0 (digital edition)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Brilliant Fun and the Only Way to Make Crime Pay… 8/10

Time for another anniversary celebration. Here’s a superb collection crying out for revival in either physical or digital forms. Time to agitate against the publishing powers-that-be, I think…

All in all, comics have a pretty good track record for creating household names. We could play the game of picking the most well-known fictional (or is that “meta”, now?) characters on Earth – usually topped by Sherlock Holmes, Mickey Mouse, Superman, Batman and Tarzan – and supplement the list with Popeye, Blondie, Charlie Brown, Tintin,Spider-Man, Garfield, and – not so much now, but once, most definitely – Dick Tracy…

At the height of the Great Depression cartoonist Chester Gould sought fresh strip ideas. The story goes that as a decent guy incensed by the exploits of gangsters like Al Capone – who monopolised the front pages of contemporary newspapers – the doughty doodler settled upon the only way a normal man could fight thugs: Passion and Public Opinion…

Raised in Oklahoma, Gould was a Chicago resident who hated seeing his home town in the grip of such wicked men, with far too many honest citizens beguiled by the gangsters’ charisma. He decided to pictorially get it off his chest with a procedural crime thriller that championed the ordinary cops who protected civilisation.

He took his proposal – “Plainclothes Tracy” – to Captain Joseph Patterson, the legendary newspaperman and strips Svengali whose golden touch had already blessed strips like The Gumps, Gasoline Alley, Little Orphan Annie, Winnie Winkle, Smilin’ Jack, Moon Mullins and Terry and the Pirates among others. Casting his gifted eye on the work, Patterson promptly renamed the hero Dick Tracy, whilst also revising his love interest into steady, steadfast girlfriend Tess Truehart.

The daily series launched on October 4th 1931 through Patterson’s own Chicago Tribune Syndicate, growing quickly into a phenomenon and monumental hit, with all the attendant media and merchandising hoopla that follows. Bolstered by toys, games, movies, serials, animated features, TV shows et al, the strip soldiered on, influencing generations of creators and entertaining millions of fans. Gould unfailingly wrote and drew the strip for decades until retirement in 1977.

The legendary lawman was a landmark creation who influenced not simply comics but the entirety of American popular fiction. Its signature use of baroque villains, outrageous crimes and fiendish death-traps pollinated the work of numerous strips (most notably Batman), shows and movies since then, whilst the indomitable Tracy’s studied, measured use – and startlingly accurate predictions – of crimefighting technology and techniques gave the world a taste of cop thrillers, police procedurals and forensic mysteries such as CSI decades before the current fascination took hold.

As with many creators in it for the long haul, the revolutionary 1960s were a harsh time for established cartoonists. Along with Milton Caniff’s Steve Canyon, Gould’s grizzled gangbuster especially foundered in a social climate of radical change where popular slogans included “Never trust anybody over 21” and “Smash the Establishment”.

The strip’s momentum faltered, perhaps as much from the move towards science fiction (Tracy went off-Earth into space and the character Moon Maid was introduced) as the improbable, Bond-movie-style villains or its perceived “old-fashioned” attitudes. Even the introduction of more minority and women characters and hippie cop Groovy Groovecouldn’t stop the rot. However, the feature soldiered on regardless…

When Gould retired in 1977, 29-year old author Max Allen Collins (Road to Perdition Nathan Heller, Mike Mist, Ms. Tree) won the prestigious role as scripter, promptly taking the series back to its crime-busting roots for a breathtaking run, ably assisted by Gould as consultant with his chief artistic assistant Rick Fletcher promoted to full illustrator.

After 11 years, in 1992 Collins was removed and replaced by Mike Kilian – who apparently worked for half the up-&-coming author’s price – until his death in October 2005, whereafter Dick Locher took over story and art, with assistant Jim Brozman assuming drawing duties from March 2009. On January 19th 2011, Tribune Media Services announced Locher’s retirement and replacement by a new team. That’s where this digital only book begins…

Incredibly versatile artist and inker Joe Staton (E-Man, Mike Mauser, The Avengers, The Incredible Hulk, Green Lantern, Legion of Super-Heroes) has been an integral part of American comic books since the early 1970s and in later years made kids comics his metier. During a spectacular run on licensed classic Scooby Doo, he and series scripter Mike Curtis (Casper the Friendly Ghost, Richie Rich, Shanda the Panda) discovered a mutual love for Dick Tracy and – mostly for their own amusement – created a tribute strip entitled Major Crime Squad.

How that landed them the duty of continuing the ultimate cop’s official adventures is addressed in introductory text feature ‘Publisher’s Note – aka “The Dick Tracy vs. Major Crime Squad Caper”’ by Steve Tippie (VP of Licensing, TMS News & Features, LLC) before a stunning chronological re-presentation of this all-new classic begins

Preceding those comic capers are more text-based insights and revelations: a Foreword by Mike Gold; former sheriff Curtis’ ‘How We Got the Job’ (supplemented by samples done in 2005 when they first tried to take on the strip) and Staton’s ‘Waiting For Dick Tracy’…

Next up is a brief visual refresher course of ‘Tracy and His Allies’ and the most nefarious of the repeat offenders in a ‘Rogues Gallery’ before the war on crime resumes in ‘Flyface and the Fifth Return’.

The strip has sadly long passed its heady glory days of mass sales, but that’s more about the death of print periodicals than this material. It still appears in a number of papers and as a potent online presences which means every episode is in full colour, with half-page Sunday strips still offering extras such as the ‘Crimestoppers Textbook’. One welcome addition is full credits so we can thank Shelley Pleger and Shane Fisher for their inks, colours and lettering…

The plot sees the long separated traditional squad fully reunited to combat right wing terrorism and gradually reintroduced to the fanciful gadgets and controversial space tech after Tracy’s inventor pal Diet Smith gets in touch. A disgruntled former employee has stolen plans for his energy-beam weapon “Thor’s Hammer”…

After selling it to old lags Flyface and the Fifth – who kidnap officer Lizz Worthington to set a trap for their old nemesis – events spiral out of control, but only the wicked pay the final price this time…

Longtime comedy characters B.O. Plenty and his wife Gravel Gertie resurface, celebrating the birth of their second child – the ugliest boy on earth! – and falling foul of a manipulative foodie TV celebrity who sees a chance to own the airwaves with the stomach-churning infant in ‘Flakey Biscuits Makes the Dough’. Sadly, her bribing gifts to the couple include a shipment of cocaine being secretly couriered by her assistant Hot Rize and soon bodies start dropping as the city’s  top drug lord seeks his missing product. Once Tracy realises what’s what, it’s all over bar the shooting…

‘Doubleup and the Scarlet Sting’ features the making of a movie starring a fictional superhero and how childhood fan and modern-day gangster Doubleup barges in: infiltrating the cast to shakedown the production. Soon he’s too involved and after murdering his girlfriend all that’s left is being caught facing real-world justice…

At this time alternate Sunday extra ‘Tracy’s Hall of Fame’ – celebrating police officers – began, days before an officially deceased and clearly incorrigible arch enemy reappeared in ‘B-B Eyes and Honeymoon’. When Tracy’s adopted son Junior goes undercover to investigate a video piracy ring, the case soon involves the old cop’s granddaughter too, when Honeymoon Tracy tries to help out and almost dies because of her enthusiasm and lack of training. Almost…

With the comics component concluded, there’s more informational extras to enjoy as Curtis offers ‘Dick Tracy vs. the Villains: A Comparison’ and we meet the creators in ‘Joe Staton’s Bio’, ‘Mike Curtis’ Bio’ and ‘Team Tracy Bios’ to end this initial casebook – hopefully the first of many.

Dick Tracy has always been a fantastically readable feature and this potent return to first principles is a terrific way to ease yourself into his stark, no-nonsense, Tough Love, Hard Justice world.

Comics just don’t get better than this…
© 2013 TMS News & Features, LLC. All rights reserved.

The Moomins and the Great Flood


By Tove Jansson, translated by David McDuff (Sort Of Books)
ISBN: 978-1-90874-513-2 (HB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Heartfelt, Fantastic, Perfect… 10/10

Tove Jansson was one of the greatest literary innovators and narrative pioneers of the 20th century: equally adept at shaping words and images to create worlds of wonder. She was especially expressive with basic primal tools like pen and ink, manipulating slim economical lines and patterns to manifest sublime realms of fascination, whilst her deeply considered dexterity made simple forms into incredibly expressive and potent symbols.

Tove Marika Jansson was born into an artistic, intellectual and practically bohemian Swedish family in Helsinki, Finland on August 9th 1914. Her father Viktor was a sculptor, her mother Signe Hammarsten-Jansson a successful illustrator, graphic designer and commercial artist. Tove’s brothers Lars and Per Olov became a cartoonist/writer and photographer respectively. The family and its tight-knit intellectual, eccentric circle of friends seems to have been cast rather than born, with a witty play or challenging sitcom – or immortal kids’ fantasy – as the piece they were all destined to act in.

After intensive study (from 1930-1938, at the University College of Arts, Crafts and Design, Stockholm, the Graphic School of the Finnish Academy of Fine Arts and L’Ecole d’Adrien Holy and L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris) she became a successful exhibition artist throughout the troubled Second World War period. She was immensely creative in numerous fields, and began her first novel as war clouds began blighting Europe in 1939. As she recounts in her Preface to the 1991 Scandinavian edition, it soon became too much and she laid it aside. Only once the war was over did she acquiesce to the urgings of friends to complete it.

In 1945 the first fantastic Moomins adventure was published: SmÃ¥trollen och den stora översvämningenThe Little Trolls and the Great Flood or latterly and more euphoniously The Moomins and the Great Flood – a whimsical epic of gentle, inclusive, accepting, understanding, bohemian, misfit trolls and their strange friends, all searching for something precious but now lost in the aftermath of a terrible calamity…

A youthful over-achiever, from 1930-1953 she worked as an illustrator and cartoonist for Swedish satirical magazine Garm, and achieved some measure of notoriety with an infamous political sketch (of Hitler in nappies) that lampooned the Appeasement policies of British Premier Chamberlain and other European leaders in the build-up to World War II.

She was also an in-demand illustrator for many magazines and children’s books, and had started selling comic strips as early as 1929. Moomintroll was her signature character.

Literally.

The lumpy, lanky, gently adventurous big-eyed romantic goof began life as a spindly sigil next to her name in her political works. She called him “Snork”: claiming to have designed him in a fit of pique as a child. He was the ugliest thing a precocious little girl could imagine and a response to losing an argument with her brother about Immanuel Kant.

The term “Moomin” came from her maternal uncle Einar Hammarsten who attempted to stop her pilfering food when she visited by warning her that a Moomintroll guarded the kitchen: creeping up on trespassers and breathing cold air down their necks. Over the years Snork/Moomin filled out, became timidly nicer – if a bit clingy and insecure – acting as a placid therapy-tool to counteract the grimness of the post-war world.

The Moomins and the Great Flood didn’t make much of an initial impact but Jansson persisted, probably as much for her own edification as any other reason, and in 1946 her second book Kometjakten (Comet in Moominland) was published. Many critics and commentators have reckoned the terrifying tale a skilfully compelling allegory of impending Nuclear Armageddon. I’m sure we all have some idea what that feels like, these days…

When it and her third illustrated novel Trollkarlens hatt (1948’s Finn Family Moomintroll also occasionally seen as The Happy Moomins) were translated into English in 1952, they reaped great acclaim, prompting British publishing giant Associated Press to commission a newspaper strip about her seductively sweet and sensibly surreal creations.

Jansson had no misgivings, pretensions or prejudices about strip cartoons and had already adapted Comet in Moominland for Swedish/Finnish paper Ny Tid. Mumintrollet och jordens undergängMoomintrolls and the End of the World – was a popular feature, so she readily accepted the chance to invite her eclectic family into homes across the world.

In 1953, The London Evening News began the first of 21 Moomin strip sagas which inevitably captivated readers of all ages. Tove’s involvement in the cartoon feature ended in 1959, a casualty of its own success and a punishing publication schedule. So great was the strain that towards the end she had recruited brother Lars to help. He took over completely, continuing the feature until its end in 1975, captivating generations of children and adults alike and pushing Jansson’s gentle gang to the forefront of literary universes…

Eventually, after a succession of 9 novels, 5 picture books and that sublime strip, Tove returned to painting, writing and her other creative pursuits, generating plays, murals, public art, stage designs, costumes for dramas and ballets, a Moomin opera as well as 13 books and short-story collections strictly for grown-ups.

Tove Jansson died on June 27th 2001 and her awards are too numerous to mention, but consider this: how many modern artists – let alone comics creators – get their faces on the national currency?

Her Moomin strips are now available in many languages – including English – and just waiting for you to enjoy. Expect untrammelled delight and delectation.

Available in hardback and ecologically sound digital editions, The Moomins and the Great Flood was out of print for years in Europe and never translated into English at all until 2005 – published by Schildts of Finland in a 60th anniversary of the series – probably because it’s slightly more sombre than the later tales. This particularly resplendent hardback hails from 2012, published in Britain by Sort Of Books and a charmingly moving little thing it is.

Neither comic strip or graphic novel, but rather a beautifully illustrated picture book, it remains unafraid to be allegorical or scary or sad yet closes with a message of joy and hope and reconciliation. Something else we could all do with…

It begins one day at the end of August as quietly capable Moominmamma and her nervous little son enter the deepest part of the great Forest. They are tired and hungry and have been searching for the longest time for Moominpappa. The big gallant oaf went off adventuring with the crazy wandering Hattifatteners and no one has seen him since. It’s been years…

Soon they are joined by a nervous Little Creature and, after escaping a Great Serpent, meet a blue haired girl named Tulippa who used to live in a flower…

Travelling together, they meet an old gentleman who lives in a tree containing a huge park full of sweets and treats, traverse a terrific abyss in a railway cart and narrowly escape an ant-lion. Persevering, the hopeful party continue their wandering search until encountering a band of Hattifatteners: joining them on their boat just as the skies begin to darken and a vast deluge begins…

The tumultuous voyage search takes all concerned through a world turned upside down by calamity, but eventually leads to a joyous reunion after all the assorted individualistic creatures affected by disaster pull together to survive the inundation and its effects…

Augmented with 14 stunning sepia-wash illustrations and 34 spot-illos in various styles of pen and ink scattered like cartoon confetti throughout the confection, this is a magical lost masterpiece for the young, laced with unfettered imagination, keen observation and mature reflection. It all enhances and elevates a simple kid’s story into a sublime classic of literature. Charming, genteel, amazingly imaginative and emotionally intense, this is a masterpiece of fantasy no one could possibly resist…
Text and illustrations © Tove Jansson 1945, 1991. English translation © David McDuff 2012.