E.C. Segar’s Popeye volume 2: “Well, Blow Me Down”

By Elzie Crisler Segar (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-874-9 (HB)

Elzie Crisler Segar was born in Chester, Illinois on 8th December 1894.His father was a handyman, and Elzie’s early life was filled with the kinds of solid blue-collar jobs that typified his generation of cartoonists. He worked as a decorator and house-painter, and played drums, accompanying vaudeville acts at the local theatre. When the town got a movie house he played for the silent films, absorbing the staging, timing and narrative tricks from the close observation of the screen that would become his bread-and-butter as a cartoonist. He was working as the film projectionist when, aged 18, he decided to become a cartoonist and tell his own stories.

Like so many others, Segar studied art via mail, in this case W.L. Evans’ cartooning correspondence course out of Cleveland, Ohio (from where Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster would launch Superman upon the world), before gravitating to Chicago where he was “discovered” by Richard F. Outcault – arguably the inventor of newspaper comic strips with The Yellow Kid and Buster Brown – who got him an introduction at the prestigious Chicago Herald. Still wet behind the ears, Segar’s first strip, Charley Chaplin’s Comedy Capers, debuted on 12th March 1916.

In 1918 he married Myrtle Johnson and moved to William Randolph Hearst’s Chicago Evening American to create Looping the Loop, but Managing Editor William Curley saw a big future for Segar and promptly packed the newlyweds off to New York and the King Features Syndicate.

Within a year Segar was producing Thimble Theatre – launched December 19th 1919 – in the New York Journal. A pastiche of Movie features similar to Hairbreadth Harry and Midget Movies it boasted a standardised repertory cast who acted out melodramas, comedies, crime-stories, chases and especially comedies, for huge daily audiences. The core cast included parental pillars Nana and Cole Oyl, their lanky daughter Olive, diminutive-but-pushy son Castor and Olive’s plain and simple, sometime boyfriend Horace Hamgravy (later just Ham Gravy).

In 1924 Segar followed up with second daily strip The 5:15: a surreal domestic sitcom featuring weedy commuter and would-be inventor John Sappo and his formidable wife Myrtle (obviously quite a common name, hmm?).

A born storyteller, Segar had from the start an advantage even his beloved cinema couldn’t match. His brilliant ear for dialogue and accent shone out from his admittedly average adventure plots, adding lustre to stories and gags he always felt he hadn’t drawn well enough. After a decade or so and just as cinema caught up with the invention of “talkies” he finally discovered a character whose unique sound and individual vocalisations blended with a fantastic, enthralling nature to create a literal superstar.

Popeye the sailor, brusque, incoherent, plug-ugly and stingingly sarcastic, shambled on stage midway through the adventure ‘Dice Island’, (on January 17th 1929: see E.C. Segar’s Popeye volume 1: “I Yam What I Yam!”) and once his part was played out, simply refused to leave. Within a year he was a regular, and as the strip’s circulation skyrocketed, he became the star. Eventually the strip was changed to Popeye and all of the old gang except Olive were consigned to oblivion…

Popeye inspired Segar. The near decade of funny thrillers that followed revolutionised the industry, laid the groundwork for the entire superhero genre (but sadly, usually without the leavening underpinnings of his self-aware humour) and captivated the whole wide world.

The astonishingly unique cast of characters invented during this period – Sea Hag, Toar, Poopdeck Pappy, Swee’pea, Eugene the Jeep, Alice the Goon, George W. Geezil, and especially J. Wellington Wimpy (potentially as big and innovative a star as Popeye) and even Professor O.G. Wotasnozzle in the Sappo daily strip which had evolved into the Sunday Popeye “Topper” – all individually verge on manic brilliance, and combined to make Popeye a global figure to rival Tarzan and Sherlock Holmes and, latterly, Mickey Mouse. To most of the world Popeye was real…

All the attendant peripherals of a major brand gravitated to Popeye. There were toys, games premiums, books, comics, film, radio shows, and especially those incredible animated cartoons. Tragically, Segar died at the height of his creative powers and with so much more magic still to make on 13th October 1938; sole creator of an incredible galaxy of imagination, but his legacy briefly lived on through his brilliant assistant Forrest “Bud” Sagendorf – although the syndicate appointed Doc Winner, Tom Sims, Ralph Stein and Bela Zaboly to work on the printed strip before letting Bud loose on it in 1959 – whilst the animated features increasingly became the main means of bringing Popeye to the world. It just wasn’t the same, though.

When Sagendorf returned, his loose, rangy style and breezy scripts brought the strip itself back to the forefront of popularity and made reading it cool once more. He wrote and drew Popeye until Bobby London took over in 1986.

These superb hardback collections are the perfect means of discovering or rediscovering Segar’s magical tales. The second huge and still readily-available volume (almost 14 ½ by 10½ inches) from 2007 contains a fascinating essay from historian Donald Phelps, a testimonial from Mort “Beetle Bailey” Walker – which includes the beautiful inspirational drawing Segar sent the young fan in 1934 – and another batch of incredible tales from the daily and Sunday strips.

The dailies black-&-white section (covering December 22nd 1930 to June 6th 1932) sees Popeye, Castor and Olive soar to stardom in the fabulous western spoof ‘Clint Gore, the Outlaw’ and strike a blow for the Depression-era poor by inventing a financial institution that gives money away in ‘A One-Way Bank’, before resuming their globe-trotting adventuring in ‘The Great Rough-House War’ and its immediate sequel ‘Tragedy in the Land of Saps’ wherein the very peculiar King Blozo of Nazilia seeks aid to end a war with the neighbouring kingdom of Tonsylania – although the real problem seems to be his own over-ambitious Generals and the fact that all his soldiers are cowards…

This classy screwball epic displays Segar’s trenchant skill with the sharp swift scalpel of satire as well as broad slapstick, and has glorious overtones of if not actual influences upon the Marx Brothers gem “Duck Soup.” With an initially reluctant Popeye compelled by his sense of duty to become King of the unlovable Nazilians, it’s also where the superman sailor reveals for the first time the strength inducing properties of spinach…

From there Popeye and Olive head back to the wild, wild west to visit ‘Skullyville, Toughest Town in the World’ and we’re treated (I think that’s the word) to the unforgettable yet frankly grisly vision of Olive Oyl as a bar-hall dancer in a raucous, ridiculous romp that’s jam-packed with lampooned cowboy clichés and hilariously brilliant original gags.

The full-colour Sunday pages cover March 1st 1931 to October 2nd 1932, with increasingly absurdist Sappo toppers thoroughly complimenting the whacky shenanigans of the lead feature.

May 8th is particularly noteworthy for the first appearance of insane Professor O.G. Wotasnozzle – another Segar walk-on who would usurp his host feature…

The Popeye strip continues the uproarious and exceedingly violent boxing career of the one-eyed sea-dog, who took on all exceedingly monstrous comers, including the awesome man-mountain Tinearo, Kid Klutch (a giant gorilla) and even a robot boxer as the increasingly obsessive and belligerent Mr. Kilph, crazed by his inability to beat the grizzled sailor-man, slipped slowly into utter wackadoodleness.

When not beating the stuffing out of his opponents Popeye pursues his flighty, vacillating and irresolute Olive with desperate verve, if little success, but his life is forever changed when the ever-so-corruptible and adorably contemptible J. Wellington Wimpy makes his debut.

The engaging Mr. Micawber-like coward, moocher and conman debuted on 3rd May 1931 as an unnamed referee in the bombastic month-long bout against Tinearo, but he obviously struck a chord with Segar who gradually made him a (usually unwelcome) fixture. Always ravenous, ever happy and eager to take a bribe, we learned his name in the May 24th instalment and he utters the first of his many immortal catchphrases a month later.

It was June 21st – but “I would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today”, like most phrases everybody knows, actually started as ‘Cook me up a hamburger, I’ll pay you Thursday’

There’s far more of Wimpy’s incredible presence in volume 3, but for now another aspect of Popeye’s complex character is revealed in an extended sequence running from May 29th 1932 through July 17th, one that quickly secured his place in reader’s hearts.

The sailor was a rough-hewn orphan, who loved to gamble and fight, not too smart and superhumanly powerful, but he was a big-hearted man with an innate sense of decency who hated injustice – even if he couldn’t pronounce it. When Mary Ann, a starving little girl, tries to sell him a flower he adopts her, taking her from the brutal couple who use her in a begging racket. He grows to love her and there’s a genuine sense of happy tragedy when he finds her real parents and gives her up. That such a rambunctious, action-packed comedy adventure serial could so easily turn an audience into sobbing, sentimental pantywaists is a measure of just how great a spellbinder Segar was…

These tales are as vibrant and compelling now as they’ve ever been and comprise a world classic of graphic literature that only a handful of creators have ever matched. Despite some astounding successors in the drawing seat, no one has ever bettered Segar’s Popeye and these superb volumes are books you’ll treasure for the rest of your life. Don’t miss them.
© 2006 Fantagraphics Books Inc. All comics and drawings © 2006 King Features Inc. All rights reserved.

The Smurfs Anthology volume 1

By Yvan Delporte & Peyo, smurflated by Joe Johnson (Papercutz/NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-59707-417-9

Pierre Culliford was born in Belgium in 1928 to a family of British origin living in the Schaerbeek district of Brussels. An admirer of the works of Hergé and American comics in Mickey, Robinson and Hurrah!, he developed his own artistic skills but the war and family bereavement forced him to forgo further education and find work.

After toiling as a cinema projectionist, in 1945 the eager teen joined C.B.A. animation studios, where he met André Franquin, Morris and Eddy Paape. When the studio closed, Pierre briefly studied at the Brussels Academy of Fine Arts before moving full-time into graphic advertising.

In his off hours he began submitting comic strips to the burgeoning post-war comics publishers. His first sale was in April 1946: Pied-Tendre, a tale of American Indians in Riquet, the comics supplement to the daily L’Occident newspaper. Further sales to other venues followed and in 1952 his bold young knight Johan found a permanent spot in Le Journal de Spirou. Retitled Johan et Pirlouit – after the inclusion of a scene-stealing comedy foil – the strip prospered and, in 1958 introduced a strange bunch of blue woodland gnomes called Les Schtroumpfs.

Culliford – now using the childhood nom de plume Peyo – would gradually succumb to popular demand and turn those adorable little mites (known to us and most of the world as The Smurfs) into an all-encompassing global empire, but before being sucked onto that relentless treadmill, he still found time to create a few other noteworthy strips such as titanic tyke Benoît Brisefer (translated recently as Benny Breakiron), and also stuck with Johan until 1977 (13 albums-full) when the pressure of creating more Smurf stuff grew too much. Even then his son Thierry with artist Alain Maury revived the series, bring the count to 17 albums

Yvan Delporte (24th June 1928-5th March 2007) was a Belgian comics writer whose greatest gift was an invisible one. He was editor of Le Journal de Spirou between 1955 and 1968: shaping strips and creator’s during Europe’s golden age of excellence. One feature he did script was Peyo’s spin-off fantasy Les Schtroumpfs, and he also found a bit of time to write René Follet’s Steve Severin and co-create Franquin’s Gaston Lagaffe and Idées noires.

We English-speakers mostly have visions of the Smurfs fostered and shaped by the animated shows, films and toys, but the comics – although aimed at an all-ages audience – were packed with social commentary and sly satire that can still take the breath away if you’re a parent reared on anodyne censored US cartoon fodder.

Thanks to the efforts of US publisher Papercutz, those gloriously outrageous medieval masterworks are available to discerning fans, both as individual albums and in superb, anthologically robust, full-colour hardback (and eBook) compilations, kitted out and filled with little extras such historical essays and all presented in the original publication order Peyo dictated. A huge bonus as far as I’m concerned is the inclusion of original artwork and (French) covers of the period…

First album ‘The Purple Smurfs’ comes with a comprehensive Introduction by Smurfologist Matt. Murray explaining the tone of those distant times and how we post-PC patrons got here from original 1959 solo saga ‘Les Schtroumpfs noirs’…

Full of fun, action, slapstick and frenetic thrills, the eponymous lead tale – by Delporte & Peyo; as are all the entries here – reveals how the idyllic hidden mushroom-styled village of the little blue folk falls to a rapidly-spreading plague. The horrific ailment is transmitted by irresistible biting and characterised by a radical shift in colouration and behaviour. Soon, only wise wizardly patriarch Papa Smurf is left to combat the Smurfie Apocalypse, and he’s running out of options…

Two shorter yarns follow as ‘The Flying Smurf’ finds one little slacker absconding from walnut-gathering duties to pursue ever more complex and obsessive ways to soar like a bird in the sky after which ‘The Smurfnapper’ finds archenemy sorcerer Gargamel and his cat Azrael hunting for the last crucial ingredient to create a Philosopher’s stone. It’s a Smurf, of course, but catching and keeping one of the little blue perishers are two entirely different things…

The second album is quite infamous in certain circles and very much a product of its era: one generation since WWII ended and right in the midst of escalating Cold War tensions. Following another Matt. Murray Introduction, discussing the heavy political and social implications of Le Schtroumpfissime, ‘The Smurf King’ details how, when Papa Smurf goes on an extended provisions hunt, his decision not to leave anyone in charge leads to rapid and radical political unrest. A half-assed and wholly inept attempt to elect a new boss goes typically awry until one bright spark realizes he can get others to vote for him by lying, making promises he can’t keep and applying heavy doses of flattery.

Soon, he’s living in a palace built by the suckers and indulging in all the perks of totalitarianism, but some Smurfs are muttering discontent and forming a rebel army…

Social satire gives way to surreal whimsy ‘The Smurfony’ then details the formation of an orchestra. One poor Smurf though has plenty of enthusiasm but no talent and his efforts make him extremely unwelcome… until Gargamel returns with soporific sound sorcery and only a bit of discord can save the day…

As previously stated, the Smurfs debuted in La Flûte à six trous, a 1958 tale of feudal comedy-adventurers Johan and Peewit. The little guys were phenomenally popular and reappeared many times before winning their own series, and when that finally happened the origin tale was rushed into album form as the third Schtroumpfs book release, suitably reimagined as La Flûte à six Schtroumpfs.

In ‘The Smurfs and the Magic Flute’ court jester Peewit – another would-be musician whose melodies induce pain and hysteria – gets hold of a flute with six holes that forces all who hear it to dance uncontrollably until they pass out. His pranks are disruptive enough but the instrument is then stolen by vile villain Matthew Oilycreep, who goes on a plundering spree, amassing stolen wealth to buy an army of mercenaries to take over the kingdom.

Young knight Johan and Peewit re at a loss to stop the usurper until they are approached by little blue men who tell them an incredible tale and invite them back to their mystical home.

They have all the answers and a plan but there’s no time to waste if disaster is to be avoided…

Wrapping up with ‘The Aftersmurf’ from Papercutz Smurf-in-Chief Jim Salicrup, this stunning collection of fun and fantasy is a magnificent example of all-ages comics wonderment no serious aficionado could do without.

Go on, You Smurf you want to…
© Peyo™ 2013 – licensed through Lafig Belgium. English translation © 2013 by Papercutz. All rights reserved.

Popeye: The Great Comic Book Tales by Bud Sagendorf

By Bud Sagendorf, edited and designed by Craig Yoe (Yoe Books/IDW)
ISBN: 978-1-60010-747-4 (HB)                eISBN: 978-1-68406-381-9

There are few comic characters that have entered communal world consciousness, but a grizzled, bluff, uneducated, visually impaired old sailor with a speech impediment is possibly the most well-known of that select bunch.

Elzie Segar had been producing Thimble Theatre since December 19th 1919, but when he introduced a coarse, brusque “sailor man” into the saga of vaudevillian archetypes Ham Gravy and Castor Oyl on January 17th 1929, nobody suspected the giddy heights that walk-on would reach…

Yes, folks, its’s Happy 90th Anniversary for the old swab, who’s still going strong under the aegis of veteran cartoonist Hy Eisman (Kerry Drake, Little Iodine, Bunny, The Katzenjammer Kids, Little Lulu). Parent strip Thimble Theatre turns one hundred this year too, so there’s that to celebrate as well…

In 1924 Segar created a second daily strip The 5:15: a surreal domestic comedy featuring weedy commuter and would-be inventor John Sappo and his formidable wife Myrtle which endured – in one form or another – as a topper/footer-feature accompanying the main Sunday page throughout the author’s career.

It even survived his untimely death, eventually becoming the trainee-playground of Popeye’s second great stylist Bud Sagendorf…

After Segar’s tragic and far too premature death in 1938, Doc Winner, Tom Sims, Ralph Stein and Bela Zambouly all worked on the printed strip even as animated short features brought Popeye to the entire world via the magic of movies. Sadly, none of them had the eccentric flair and raw inventiveness that had put Thimble Theatre at the forefront of cartoon entertainments…

Born in 1915, Forrest “Bud” Sagendorf was barely 17 when his sister – who worked in the Santa Monica art store where Segar bought his supplies – introduced the kid to the master who became his teacher and employer as well as a father-figure. In 1958, Sagendorf took over the strip and all the merchandise design, becoming Popeye’s prime originator…

When Sagendorf took over, his loose, rangy style and breezy scripts brought the strip itself back to the forefront of popularity and made reading it cool and fun all over again. He wrote and drew Popeye in every graphic arena – including the majority of licensed merchandise – for 24 years. Sagendorf retired in 1986 after which “Underground” cartoonist Bobby London took over the Sailorman’s voyages and died in 1994.

Bud had been Segar’s assistant and apprentice, and from 1948 onwards he wrote and drew Popeye’s comicbook adventures in a regular monthly title published by America’s king of licensed periodicals, Dell Comics.

When Popeye first appeared, he was a rude, crude brawler: a gambling, cheating, uncivilised ne’er-do-well. He was soon exposed as the ultimate working-class hero: raw and rough-hewn, practical, but with an innate, unshakable sense of what’s fair and what’s not, a joker who wanted kids to be themselves – but not necessarily “good” – and someone who took no guff from anyone.

Naturally, as his popularity grew, Popeye mellowed somewhat. He was still ready to defend the weak and had absolutely no pretensions or aspirations to rise above his fellows but the shocking sense of dangerous unpredictability and comedic anarchy he initially provided was sorely missed… but not in Sagendorf’s comicbook yarns…

Collected in this enchanting full-colour hardback (also available in a digital edition) is an admittedly arbitrary and far from definitive selection of the Young Master’s compelling funnybook canon from Dell, spanning February/April 1948 to September 1957. Other yarns are readily available in IDW’s Popeye Classics series and I’ll be plugging those in the fullness of time.

The stunning, seemingly stream-of-consciousness stories are preceded here by an effusively appreciative Introduction from Jerry Beck before ‘Ahoy, Ya Swabs!’ relates history and recollection from inspired aficionado and historian/publisher Craig Yoe augmented by a fabulous collation of candid photos, original comicbook art, more.

Especial gems are Bud’s 1956 lessons on backgrounds from the Famous Artists Cartoon Course, series of postcards and the Red Cross booklet produced for sailors.

Popeye’s fantastic first issue launched in February 1948, with no ads and duo-coloured (black and red) single page strips on the inside front and back covers. From that premiere issue a full-coloured crisis comes as ‘Shame on You! or Gentlemen Do Not Fight! or You’re a Ruffian, Sir!’ sees our salty swab earning a lucrative living as an occasional prize-fighter. That all ends when upcoming contender Kid Kabagge and his cunning manager Mr. Tillbox use a barrage of psychological tricks to put Popeye off his game. The key component is electing his sweetie Olive Oyl President of the fictitious Anti-Fisticuff Society to convince her man to stop being a beastly ruffian and abandon violence. It only works until the fiery frail learns she’s been gulled…

Next up is the lead tale from #9, (October/November) as ‘Misermites! or I’d Rather Have Termites!’ details how the peaceful coastal town of Seawet is plagued by an invasion of plundering dwarves. When the petty pilferers vanish back to their island with “orphink kid” Swee’ Pea as part of their spoils, Popeye and Wimpy give chase and end up battling a really, really big secret weapon…

‘Witch Whistle’ comes from Popeye #12 (April/May 1950) and sees the sailor revisit the embattled kingdom of Spinachovia where old King Blozo is plagued by a rash of vanishing farmers. The cause is sinister old nemesis the Sea Witch whose army of giant vultures seem unbeatable until Popeye intervenes…

‘Interplanetary Battle’ comes from Popeye #21 (July-September 1952) and taps into the growing fascination with UFOs as Wimpy innocently seeks to aid his old pal. When no prize fighter on Earth will box with Popeye, the helpful vagabond broadcasts a message to the universe and what answers the call is a bizarre shapeshifting swab with sneaky magic powers…

An engaging Micawber-like coward, cad and conman, the insatiable J. Wellington Wimpy debuted on in the Newspaper strip on May 3rd 1931 as an unnamed and decidedly partisan referee in one of Popeye’s pugilistic bouts. The scurrilous but polite oaf struck a chord and Segar gradually made him a fixture. Always hungry, keen to solicit bribes and a cunning coiner of many immortal catchphrases – such as “I would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today” and ‘Let’s you and him fight’ – Wimpy was the perfect foil for a simple action hero and increasingly stole the entire show… and anything else unless it was extremely well nailed down…

From Popeye #25 (July-September 1953), ‘Shrink Weed’ then details how some “wild spinach” reduces the old salt and baby Swee’ Pea to the size of insects with potentially dire and outrageous consequences before the entire cast visit ‘The Happy Little Island’ (Popeye #27, January-March 1954) and confront subsurface creatures doing their darndest to spoil that jolly atmosphere.

An epic thrill-fest manifests in ‘Alone! or Hey! Where is Everybody? or Peoples is All Gone!’ (#32, April-June 1955) as humans are abducted from all over the coast, leading Popeye into another ferocious battle with evil machines and his most persistent enemy, after which another family sea-voyage results in the cast being castaway on an island of irascible invisible folk in ‘Nothing!’ (#34, October-December 1955) before the fun concludes in sheer surreal strife as Popeye #41 (July-September 1957) displays capitalism at its finest when Olive gets a new boyfriend: one with a regular job and prospects. Stung to retaliate, Popeye devises ‘Spinach Soap!’ to secure his own fortune, but being un-ejjikated, rough-and-ready appoints Wimpy as his boss. Big mistake…

There is more than one Popeye. Most of them are pretty good, and some are truly excellent. The one in this book is definitely one of the latter and if you love lunacy, laughter and rollicking adventure you must now read this.
Popeye: The Great Comic Book Tales by Bud Sagendorf © 2018 Gussoni-Yoe Studio, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Popeye © 2018 King Features Syndicate. ™ Heart Holdings Inc.

Adventures of Tintin: The Shooting Star

By Hergé & various; translated by Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper & Michael Turner (Egmont)
ISBN: 978-1-40520-621-1 (PB)

Georges Prosper Remi – AKA Hergé – created a true masterpiece of graphic literature with his astounding yarns tales of a plucky boy reporter and his entourage of iconic associates. Singly, and later with assistants including Edgar P. Jacobs, Bob de Moor and the Hergé Studio, Remi completed 23 splendid volumes (originally produced in brief instalments for a variety of periodicals) that have grown beyond their popular culture roots and attained the status of High Art.

It’s only fair, though, to ascribe a substantial proportion of credit to the many translators whose diligent contributions have enabled the series to be understood and beloved in 38 languages. The subtle, canny, witty and slyly funny English versions are the work of Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper & Michael Turner.

On leaving school in 1925, Remi worked for Catholic newspaper Le Vingtiéme Siécle where he fell under the influence of its Svengali-like editor Abbot Norbert Wallez. The following year, the young artist – a passionate and dedicated boy scout – produced his first series: The Adventures of Totor for monthly Boy Scouts of Belgium magazine.

By 1928 Remi was in charge of producing the contents of the parent paper’s children’s weekly supplement Le Petit Vingtiéme and unhappily illustrating The Adventures of Flup, Nénesse, Poussette and Cochonette when Abbot Wallez urged the artist to create an adventure series. Perhaps a young reporter who would travel the world, doing good whilst displaying solid Catholic values and virtues?

And also, perhaps, highlight and expose some the Faith’s greatest enemies and threats…?

Having recently discovered the word balloon in imported newspaper strips, Remi decided to incorporate this simple yet effective innovation into his own work. He would produce a strip both modernistic and action-packed.

Beginning January 10th 1929, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets appeared in weekly instalments, running until May 8th 1930.

Accompanied by his garrulous dog Milou (Snowy to us Brits), the clean-cut, no-nonsense boy-hero – a combination of Ideal Good Scout and Remi’s own brother Paul (a soldier in the Belgian Army) – would report back all the inequities of the world, since the strip’s prime conceit was that Tintin was an actual foreign correspondent for Le Petit Vingtiéme

The odyssey was a huge success, assuring further – albeit less politically-charged and controversial – exploits to follow. At least that was the plan…

During the Nazi Occupation of Belgium, Le Petit Vingtiéme was closed down and Hergé was compelled to move the popular strip to the occupiers’ preferred daily newspaper Le Soir. He diligently continued producing strips for the duration, but in the period following Belgium’s liberation was accused of being a collaborator and even a Nazi sympathiser.

It took the intervention of Resistance hero Raymond Leblanc to dispel the cloud over Hergé, which he did by simply vouching for the cartoonist and by providing the cash to create a new magazine – Le Journal de Tintin – which Leblanc published and managed. The anthology comic swiftly achieved a weekly circulation in the hundreds of thousands.

With this tale we enter the Golden Age of an iconic creator’s work. Despite being produced whilst Belgium was under the control of Nazi Occupation Forces during World War II, the qualitative leap in all aspects of Hergé’s creativity is potent and remarkable.

After his homeland fell to the invaders in 1940, Georges Remi’s brief military career was over. He was a reserve Lieutenant, working on The Land of Black Gold when called up, but the swift fall of Belgium meant that he was back at his drawing board before year’s end, albeit working for a new paper on a brand-new adventure. He would not return to the unfinished Black Gold, with its highly anti-fascistic subtext, until 1949.

L’Étoile mystérieuse ran in Le Soir (the little nation’s premiere French-language newspaper and a crucial tool for the Germans to control minds, if not hearts) from October 20th 1941 to May 21st 1942: the second of six extraordinary tales of light-hearted, escapist thrills, blending strong plots and deep characterisation to create a haven of delight from the daily horrors of everyday life then and remain a legacy of joyous adventure to this day.

On completion it was collected as a full-colour book in 1942 and later serialised in French newspaper Coeurs Vaillants (from June 6th 1943). It was among a flurry of reissues of earlier albums – all but Tintin in America and The Black Island, both set in countries Germany was still at war with…

In 1954 it was remastered by Studio Hergé, to remove certain anti-Semitic and anti-American passages and imagery he had been forced to include by the paper’s controllers, and comes to us as a stunning piece of apocalyptic, sci-fi flavoured adventure…

The remastered edition of The Shooting Star was one of the first tales re-issued after World War II, due no doubt to its relatively escapist plot… it’s practically an old-fashioned pulp thriller.

It begins with the world gripped in terror as a fiery meteor is detected hurtling towards Earth. The end times are narrowly averted only by the sheerest chance, as the heavenly body narrowly misses our frail planet, although when a relatively small chunk breaks off, scientists find that it contains an unknown metal of immense potential value. And so begins a fantastic race to find and claim the fallen meteorite…

A party of European scientists charters the survey ship “Aurora”, with boozy stalwart Captain Haddock commanding and Tintin aboard as official Press representative. Frantically sailing north to the Pole, they discover that they are in competition with the unscrupulous forces of the evil capitalists of the Bohlwinkel Bank, whose rival expedition uses every dirty trick imaginable to sabotage or delay the scientists.

After a truly Herculean effort and by sheer dint of willpower – not to say spectacular bravery – Tintin is the first to claim their floating prize and successfully defends it from the villainous Bohlwinkel crew, but the fallen star itself is a far greater menace, as its mysterious and exotic composition induces monstrous gigantism in earthly organisms. Tintin and Snowy must survive assaults by mutated insects and plants before the breathtaking conclusion of this splendid tale.

Manifestly as the world experienced a new Dark Age, Hergé was concentrating on the next -Golden – one…

These ripping yarns for all ages are an unparalleled highpoint in the history of graphic narrative. Their unflagging popularity proves them to be a worthy addition to the list of world classics of literature, and stories you and your entire clan should know.
The Shooting Star: artwork © 1946, 1974 Editions Casterman, Paris & Tournai. Text © 1961 Egmont UK Limited. All rights reserved.

The Adventures of Jo, Zette & Jocko: The Valley of the Cobras

By Hergé, translated by Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper & Michael Turner (Egmont UK/Mammoth)
ISBN: 978-1-4052-1244-1 (HB)                    978-0-74970-385-1 (PB)

George Remi, world famous as Hergé, had a long creative connection to Catholicism. At the behest of Abbot Norbert Wallez, editor of Belgian Catholic newspaper Le XXe Siécle, he had created Tintin before moving on to such strips as the mischievous Quick and Flupke, Tim the Squirrel in the Far West’, ‘The Amiable Mr. Mops’, ‘Tom and Millie’ and ‘Popol Out West’ – all while continuing and expanding the globe-trotting adventures of the dauntless boy reporter and his faithful little dog.

In 1935, between working on serialised Tintin epics The Blue Lotus and The Broken Ear, Remi was approached by Father Courtois, director of the French weekly newspaper Coeurs Vaillants (Valiant Hearts). The paper already carried the daily exploits of Hergé’s undisputed star-turn, but Courtois also wanted a strip depicting solid family values and situations that the seemingly-orphaned and independent boy reporter was never exposed to.

He also presumably wanted something less subversive than the mischievous, trouble-making working-class boy rascals Quick and Flupke

The proposed feature needed a set of characters typifying a decent, normal family: A working father, a housewife and mother, young boy, a sister, even a pet. Apparently inspired by a toy monkey called Jocko, Hergé devised the family Legrand.

Jacques was an engineer, and son Jo and daughter Zette were average kids; bright, brave, honest, smart and yet still playful. Mother stayed home, cooking and being rather concerned rather a lot. They had a small, feisty monkey for a pet – although I suspect as Jocko was tailless, he might have been a baby chimpanzee, which “As Any Fule Kno” is actually a species of ape.

The first adventure was a two-volume treasure: ‘The Secret Ray’ – only once published in English and consequently rarer than Hen’s teeth or monkey feathers. A ripping yarn of scientific bandits, gangsters, mad professors, robots and, regrettably, some rather ethnically unsound incidences of cannibal savages, this is very much a product of its time in too many respects.

Although Hergé came to deeply regret (and wherever possible amend) his many early uses of that era’s racial stereotyping, the island dwelling natives in Le “Manitoba” Ne Répond Plus and L’ Éruption Du Karamako (which originally ran in Coeurs Vaillants from January 19th 1936 to June 1937) will now always be controversial.

It’s a true pity that such masterful and joyous work has to be viewed with caution, read strictly in context and must be ascribed subtext and values which may never have been intended, merely because the medium is pictorial and its meaning passively acquired rather than textual, and which can therefore only be decoded by the conscious effort of reading.

I also wonder how much was a quiet, sensitive artist led by an aggressively proselytising, missionary Church’s doctrine and policy…

How much Church opposition was there to Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia in October 1935 for example? And don’t get me started on Nazi Germany and the Vatican…

Sorry. Rant brakes have been applied now…

The last completed adventure of the boldly capable Legrand family came out in the 1950’s, when Hergé was at the peak of his creative powers. Although he found the concept a difficult one to work with, devoid of the opportunities for satire or social commentary, the wholesome derring-do of this series still provides thrilling and funny entertainment for kids of all ages.

Whilst vacationing in the Alps, Jo and Zette inadvertently fall foul of the whimsical and capricious Maharajah of Gopal, who is infuriated that they are better skiers than he. Matters only worsen when Jo accidentally hits the Maharajah with a snowball.

The spoiled, rich bully’s appalling behaviour escalates until eventually their father Jacques administers a long overdue spanking to the middle-aged potentate which completely changes his attitude. The much friendlier Maharajah promptly commissions the engineer to construct a bridge across the fabled Valley of the Cobras that divides his mountainous kingdom.

As the family embark for the sub-continent, all are unaware that the villainous Prime Minister of Gopal has colluded with a greedy Fakir to sabotage the project…

Begun in 1939 but shelved for nearly two decades, this is still a light exuberant romp, full of thrills and packed with laughs, executed with the captivating artistry that has made Tintin a global phenomenon. This is a book any child will adore and it baffles me why it and its companion volumes are out of print. Hopefully not for long though
© 1957, 2007 Editions Casterman, Paris & Tournai. All rights reserved. English text © 1986, 2005 Egmont UK Limited. All rights reserved.

Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam! volume 1

By Mike Kunkel, Art Baltazar, Franco, Byron Vaughns, Ken Branch & Stephen DeStefano (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-2248-2

After the runaway success of Jeff Smith’s magnificent reinvention of the original Captain Marvel (see Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil) it was simply a matter of time before this latest iteration won its own title in the monthly marketplace. What was a stroke of sheer genius was to place the new Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam! under the bright and shiny aegis of the company’s young reader imprint – what used to be the Cartoon Network umbrella.

In a most familiar world, slightly askew of the mainstream DC Universe, these frantically ebullient and utterly contagious tales of the orphan Batson and his obnoxious, hyperactive little sister – both gifted by an ancient mage with the powers of the gods – can play out in wild and woolly semi-isolation hampered by nothing except the page count…

Billy Batson is a homeless kid with a murky past and a glorious destiny. One night he follows a mysterious figure into an abandoned subway station and met the wizard Shazam, who grants him the ability to turn into an adult superhero called Captain Marvel. Gifted with the wisdom of Solomon, strength of Hercules, stamina of Atlas, power of Zeus, courage of Achilles and speed of Mercury, the lad is despatched into the world to do good, a noble if immature boy in a super man’s body.

Accompanied by talking tiger-spirit Mr. Tawky Tawny, Billy tracks down his missing little sister, but whilst battling evil genius Dr. Sivana (US Attorney General and would-be ruler of the universe) he impetuously causes a ripple in the world’s magical fabric through which monsters and ancient perils occasionally slip through. Now, the reunited orphans are trying to live relatively normal lives, but finding the going a little tough…

Firstly, without adults around, Billy often has to masquerade as his own dad and when he’s not at school he’s the breadwinner, earning a living as a boy-reporter at radio and TV station WHIZ. Moreover, little Mary also has access to the Power of Shazam, and she’s a lot smarter than he is in using it… and a real pain in Billy’s neck.

Mike Kunkel, inspired creator of the simply lovely Herobear and the Kid, leads off this collection (gathering the first six issues of the much-missed monthly comic-book for readers of all ages): writing and drawing a breakneck, riotous romp reintroducing the new Marvel Family to any new readers and, by virtue of that pesky rift in the cosmic curtain, recreating the Captain’s greatest foe: Black Adam.

This time the evil predecessor of the World’s Mightiest Mortal is a powerless but truly vile brat: a bully who returns to Earth after millennia in limbo ready to cause great mischief – but he can’t remember his own magic word…

This hilarious tale has just the right amount of dark underpinning as the atrocious little thug stalks Billy and Mary, trying to wheedle and eventually torture the secret syllables from them, and when inevitably Black Adam regains his mystic might and frees the sinister Seven Deadly Evils of Mankind from their imprisonment on the wizard’s Rock of Eternity, the stage is set for a classic confrontation.

Pitched perfectly at the young reader, with equal parts danger, comedy, sibling rivalry and the regular outwitting of adults, this first storyline screams along with a brilliantly clever feel-good finish…

From issue #5 the writing team of Art Baltazar and Franco (responsible for the incomparably compulsive madness of Tiny Titans and Superman Family) take over, and artists Byron Vaughns & Ken Branch handled the first bombastic tale as convict Doctor Sivana unleashes the destructive giant robot Mr. Atom to cover his escape from prison.

The story-section concludes with another funny and extremely dramatic battle – this time against primordial super-caveman King Kull, who wants to reconquer the planet he ruled millennia ago. Older fans of gentle fantasy will be enthralled and delighted here by the singular art of Stephen DeStefano, who won hearts and minds with his illustration of Bob Rozakis’ seminal series Hero Hotline and ‘Mazing Man (both painfully, criminally overdue for graphic novel collections of their own…)

Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam! is an ideal book for getting kids into comics: funny, thrilling, beautifully, stylishly illustrated and perfectly in tune with what young minds want to see. Moreover, with the major motion picture adaptation set to premiere in April, it’s a timely moment to get reacquainted with the Big Red Cheese…

With a gloriously enticing sketches section and a key code for those pages written in the “Monster Society of Evil Code” this is an addictive treat for all readers who can still revel in the power of pure wonderment and still glory in an unbridled capacity for joy.
© 2008, 2009 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Archie & Friends All-Stars: Christmas Stocking

By Many & various (Archie Comics Publications)
ISBN: 978-1-879794-57-3

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: An Unmissable Tradition… 8/10

My good lady wife and I have a peculiar ritual that I’m not ashamed to share with you. Every Christmas we lock the doors, draw the shutters and stoke up the radiators before settling down with a huge pile of seasonal comics from yesteryear. There’s a few DC’s, a bunch of Disneys and some British annuals, but the biggest bunch is Archie Comics (although we have graduated to graphic novel compilations and even digital collections).

From the 1950s onwards, The Archie team have made Yule time a brighter warmer, dafter time with a gloriously funny, charming, nostalgically sentimental barrage of top-notch stories capturing the spirit of the season throughout a range of comicbooks running from Archie to Veronica, Betty to Sabrina and Jughead to Santa himself…

For most of us, when we say comicbooks people’s thoughts turn to buff men and women in garish tights hitting each other and lobbing trees or cars about, or stark, nihilistic crime, horror or science fiction sagas aimed an extremely mature and sophisticated readership of confirmed fans – and indeed that has been the prolific norm of late. If you don’t count the barrage of licensed titles championing the other pillars of Christmas: toys game and cartoons…

Throughout the years though, other forms and genres have waxed and waned but one that has held its ground over the years – although almost completely migrated to television – is the teen-comedy genre begun by and synonymous with a carrot topped, homely (at first just plain ugly) kid named Archie Andrews.

MLJ were a small publisher who jumped on the “mystery-man” bandwagon following the debut of Superman. In November 1939 they launched Blue Ribbon Comics, promptly following with Top-Notch (see what I did earlier?) and Pep Comics. Content comprised the common blend of funny-book costumed heroes and two-fisted adventure strips, although Pep did make some history with its lead feature The Shield, who was the industry’s first super-hero to be clad in the flag.

After initially profiting from the Fights ‘N’ Tights crowd, Maurice Coyne, Louis Silberkleit and John Goldwater (hence MLJ) were quick to spot a gap in their blossoming market. In December 1941 the costumed heroes and two-fisted adventure strips were supplemented by a wholesome ordinary hero, an “average teen” who would have ordinary adventures like the readers, but with the laughs, good times, romance and slapstick emphasised.

Pep Comics #22 introduced a gap-toothed, freckle-faced red-headed goof showing off to the pretty blonde next door. Taking his lead from the popular Andy Hardy matinee movies starring Mickey Rooney, Goldwater developed the concept of a wholesome youthful everyman protagonist, tasking writer Vic Bloom and artist Bob Montana with the job of making it work.

It began with an innocuous six-page tale entitled ‘Archie’ which introduced boy-goofball Archie Andrews and pretty girl-next-door Betty Cooper. Archie’s unconventional best friend and confidante Jughead Jones also debuted in that first story as did the small-town utopia of Riverdale.

The feature was an instant hit and by the winter of 1942 had graduated to its own title. Archie Comics #1 was the company’s first non-anthology magazine and with it came a gradual transformation of the entire company. After the introduction of rich, raven-haired Veronica Lodge, all the pieces were in play for the industry’s second Phenomenon (Superman being the first).

By May 1946 the kids had taken over, so the company renamed itself Archie Comics, retiring its heroic characters years before the end of the Golden Age and becoming to all intents and purposes a publisher of family comedies. Its success, like the Man of Steel’s, changed the content of every other publisher’s titles, and led to a multi-media industry including TV, movies, pop-songs and even a chain of restaurants.

Those costumed cut-ups have returned on occasion, but the company now seems content to concentrate on what they do uniquely best.

Archie is a well-meaning boy but lacks common sense. Betty is the pretty, sensible girl next door, with all that entails, and she loves Archie. Veronica is rich, exotic and glamorous; she only settles for our boy if there’s nobody better around. She might actually love him, though. Archie, typically, can’t decide who or what he wants…

This family-friendly eternal triangle has been the basis of nearly seventy years of charming, raucous, gentle, frenetic, chiding and even heart-rending comedy encompassing everything from surreal wit to frantic slapstick, as the kids and an increasing cast of friends grew into an American institution. So pervasive is the imagery that it’s a part of Americana itself. Adapting seamlessly to every trend and fad of the growing youth culture, the battalion of writers and artists who’ve crafted the stories over the decades have made the “everyteen” characters of mythical Riverdale a benchmark for youth and a visual barometer of growing up.

Archie’s unconventional best friend Jughead Jones is Mercutio to Archie’s Romeo, providing rationality and a reader’s voice, as well as being a powerful catalyst of events in his own right. That charming triangle (+ one) has formed the foundation of decades of comics magic. Moreover, the concept is eternally self-renewing…

Each social revolution was painlessly assimilated into the mix (the company has managed to confront a number of social issues affecting the young in a manner both even-handed and tasteful over the years) and the addition of new characters such as Chuck, an African-American kid who wants to be a cartoonist, his girlfriend Nancy, fashion-diva Ginger, Hispanic couple Frankie and Maria, gay icon and role model Kevin Keller plus a host of others such a spoiled home-wrecker-in-waiting Cheryl Blossom all contributed to a broad and refreshingly broad-minded scenario.

This volume (available in paperback and digital formats) was the sixth in a line of albums blending old with new and capitalising on the growing popularity of graphic novels. It gathers some of the best Christmas stories of recent years as well as an all-original Yule adventure which delightfully shows the overwhelming power of good writing and brilliant art to captivate an audience of any age.

It all kicks off with ‘Have Yourself a Cheryl Little Christmas’, wherein the gang head off en masse for a winter break, not knowing Queen of Mean Cheryl Blossom is intending to spoil all their fun. Luckily the ever-vigilant Santa knows who’s going to be naughty or nice and dispatches his top agent Jingles the Elf (an Archie regular for decades) to foil her plans…

‘The Night Before Christmas’ adapts the perennial 1823 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” attributed to Clement Clarke Moore into a handy introduction to the Riverdale stars before culminating in a clever and heart-warming family moment for Archie and his long-suffering parents, whilst Jughead’s family take centre-stage in the mini-miracle ‘Playing Santa’.

The stresses of having two girlfriends finally overcome Archie in ‘A Not-So-Cool Yule’ before Veronica’s hard-pressed dad once more gets the short end of the stick in ‘Santa Cause’ after which rivals Betty & Veronica succumb to another bout of insane competition in ‘Tis the Season For… Extreme Decorating’.

That darned elf returns in ‘Jingles All the Way’ trying to pry Archie out from under Betty & Veronica’s shapely well-manicured (Ronnie’s at least) thumbs, but faces unexpected opposition from pixie hottie Sugar Plum the Yule Fairy, and we get a glimpse of the kids’ earliest experiences when Betty digs out her diary for a delightful trip ‘Down Memory Lane’.

This sparkling comic bauble concludes with another tale based on that inescapable ode in ‘The Nite Before X-Mas!’

These are perfect stories for young and old alike, crafted by those talented Santa’s Helpers Dan Parent, Greg Crosby, Mike Pellowski & George Gladir, and polished up by the artistic talents of Parent, Stan Goldberg, Fernando Ruiz, Rich Koslowski, Bob Smith, Al Milgrom, John Lowe, Jack Morelli, Vickie Williams, Jon D’Agostino, Tito Peña, Barry Grossman and Digikore Studios.

These stories epitomise the magic of the Season and celebrate the perfect wonder of timeless children’s storytelling: What kind of Grinch could not want this book in their stocking?
© 2010 Archie Comics Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.

Babar and Father Christmas

By Jean de Brunhoff (Egmont)
ISBN: 978-1-4052-3822-9 (PB)                     978-1-4052-9259-7 (HB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: All Aboard for a Splendid Santa Safari… 9/10

Babar the Elephant has been charming readers for generations and Egmont have stuck with the proud pachyderm since they revived the series in 2008.

The gentle and genteel big guy first appeared in France in 1931 where L’Histoire de Babar was an instant hit. An English-language version debuted in 1933, complete with introduction by A. A. Milne, bringing Jean de Brunhoff’s forthright and capable elephantine hero across the channel and thence across the Oceans to America and the Colonies.

By all accounts, the tale was a bedtime story his wife Cecile created for their own children. De Brunhoff wrote and painted seven adventures before his death in 1937, with two of them published posthumously. After World War II his son Laurent continued the family franchise producing ten more adventures between 1946 and 1966.

The books have in their time been controversial. Many critics regard them as being pro-colonialism, and as products of a more robust time, they could never be regarded as saccharine or anodyne, but they are sweet, alluring and irresistibly captivating.

When baby Babar is growing up in the jungle his mother is killed by white hunters. Terrified and sad, the baby flees in a panic, eventually coming to a very un-African provincial city. He meets a kind old lady there who gives him money to buy a suit. As he adapts to city-life he moves into her very large house and is educated in modern, civilised ways. But still, occasionally, he feels homesick and misses his jungle home.

After two years he meets his cousins Celeste and young Arthur wandering naked in the streets of the city and Old Lady gets them clothes too. Soon though, their mothers come to fetch them and Babar decides to return with them and show the other elephants all the wonderful things he has experienced. Buying a motor-car and filling it with clothes and presents he returns just in time, because the King of all the Elephants has eaten a bad mushroom and is dying…

The political assumptions of adults are one thing, but the most valid truth is that these are magical books for the young, illustrated in a style that is fluid, humorously detailed and splendidly memorable. Even after nearly 90 years they have the power to enthral and captivate, and that charm is leavened with an underlying realism that is still worthy of note.

In today’s recommendation (released in 1941 as Babar et le père Noël), our so-very-urbane elephant and now patient parent undertakes an arduous expedition to bring joy to his children and his people.

One day Zephir the monkey tells Babar’s children Pom, Flora and Alexander – and their ubiquitous Cousin Arthur – about the fabulous Father Christmas who brings presents to children in the world of Men.

Captivated, they decide to invite the venerable gentleman to visit them, but after a very long time with no reply, they become despondent. Devoted paternal Babar decides to seek out Father Christmas and personally invite him to the Land of the Elephants…

Produced at a time when the World desperately needed something bright, cheerful and filled with hope, this last tale from de Brunhoff is a fabulously inventive and escapist adventure brimming with simple charm and clever, enchanting artwork. Europhiles will also be delighted to discover that the North Pole is merely a forwarding address and his real home is where it’s always been – in the cold, snowy mountains of Bohemia.

Great Children’s Books are at once plentiful and scarce. There are many, but definitely never enough. This deceptively engaging series has weathered the test of time and has earned a place on your shelves and in your hearts.

Moreover, if you’re looking for a big bold bargain you might want to pick up 2016’s The Babar Collection: Five Classic Stories which combines this seasonal gem with four other all-ages classics to astound and delight your herd.
© 2018 Edition. All Rights Reserved.

The Great Treasury of Christmas Comic Book Stories

By John Stanley, Walt Kelly, Richard Scarry, Jack Bradbury, Klaus Nordling, Mike Sekowsky, Alberto Giolitti & various: edited and designed by Craig Yoe with Clizia Gussoni (IDW Publishing)
ISBN: 978-1-60010-773-3(HB); 978-1-68405-009-3(TPB); eISBN: 978-1-68406-352-9

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: The Clue is in the Title… 10/10

Justifiably revered for his brilliant newspaper strip Pogo, and perhaps even his wonderful Our Gang tales, the incredible Walt Kelly also has a pretty strong claim to owning the traditional childhood Christmas. From 1942 until he abandoned comic-books for newsprint he produced stories and magazines dedicated to the season of Good Will for West Coast publishing giant Dell.

Santa Claus Funnies and Christmas with Mother Goose were a Holidays institution in both their Four Color and Dell Giant incarnations and the sheer beauty and charm of Kelly’s work defined what Christmas should be for two generations. Kelly transferred his affinity for the best of all fantasy worlds to the immortal Pogo but still was especially associated with the Festive season. Many publications sought out his special touch. Even the Christmas 1955 edition of Newsweek starred Kelly and Co on the cover.

And now, thanks to that dedicated champion preserver of America Comics Past Craig Yoe, I can add a wealth of other great creators and stories to our communal seasonal joy-fest, as this cracking tome – available in all physical and electronic formats – celebrates Yuletide comic classics.

Offering old masters and vintage delights from Santa Claus Funnies # 61, 91,128, 175, 205, 302, 361, 867, 1154 and 1274 (1944-1962) and 1962’s Santa Claus Funnies #1, plus material from A Christmas Treasury #1 1954, Sleepy Santa (1948), Ha Ha Comics #49 (1947), Santa and the Pirates (1953), Here Comes Santa (1960), Christmas at the Rotunda, Giant Comics #3 (1957) and Christmas Carnival volume 1 #2 (1954) this superb funfest opens with a silent short by Kelly revealing the Big (in red) Man’s working practice, & Mo Gollub introducing ‘The Christmas Mouse’ (from Santa Clause Funnies #126 and #175) before we enjoy a Seasonal message (illustrated by Mel Millar) revealing ‘Hey Kids, Christmas Comics!’

‘How Santa Got his Red Suit’ is a superbly imaginative, gnome-stuffed origin fable by Kelly from Santa Claus Funnies # 61, after which H.R. Karp & Jack Bradbury reveal the salutary saga of ‘Blitzen, Jr.’ as first seen in Ha Ha Comics #49 and a tragically uncredited team disclose in prose-&-picture format the magical adventure of ‘Santa and the Pirates’, taken from a booklet premium released by Promotional Publishing Co. NYC.

As rendered by the inimitable John Stanley SCF #1154’s ‘Santa’s Problem’ explores the good intentions and bad habits of polar bears before Mike Sekowsky contributes a concise and workmanlike adaptation of ‘A Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens (from A Christmas Treasury #1) before Kelly returns with the heart-warming tale of ‘A Mouse in the House’ (SCF #128).

Stanley strikes again with ‘The Helpful Snowman’ (Here Comes Santa) offering aerial assistance to Kris Kringle whilst ‘Christmas at the Rotunda’ offers a classy version of ‘The Shoemaker and the Elves’ courtesy of Elsa Jane Werner & Richard Scarry, after which cognoscenti can see potent prototypes for Pogo characters in 1945’s ‘Christmas Comes to the Woodland’ (SCF #91): another whimsical Kelly classic.

Imbecilic but well-meaning elf Scamper causes mayhem and ‘Santa’s Return Trip’ in wry delight from John Stanley & Irving Tripp (from SCF #1274) after which Stanley & Dan Gormley craft an epic voyage for determined rugrats Cathy and David as they deliver ‘A Letter for Santa’ (Santa Claus Funnies #1).

Another masterful Kelly prose-&-picture fable then recounts the sentimental journey of ‘Ticky Tack, the Littlest Reindeer’ (SCF #205) and the animal crackerz continue as a lost puppy finds friendship and a new home in ‘Sooky’s First Christmas’ (Stanley & Gormley from SCF #867)…

Charlton Comics were late to the party for X-mas strips but their glorious Giant Comics #3 from 1957 provides here both Frank Johnson’s anarchic ‘Lil’ Tomboy in It Was the Day Before Christmas…’ and an extra-length action-packed romp for Al Fago to masterfully orchestrate in ‘Atomic Mouse in The Night before Christmas’. Separating those yarns is a deft updating of Clement Clark Moore’s ubiquitous ode in ‘The Night before Christmas’ by Dan Gormley from A Christmas Treasury #1…

In 1947, Walt Kelly set his sights on consolidating a new Holiday mythology and succeeded with outrageous aplomb in ‘The Great Three-Flavoured Blizzard’ (Santa Claus Funnies #175) as an unseasonal warm spell precipitates a crisis and necessitates the making of a new kind of snow, before the fabulous Klaus Nordling contributes a stylish comedy of errors with ‘Joe and Jennifer in the Wonderful Snowhouse’ from Christmas Carnival volume 1 #2.

Bringing things to a close Dan Noonan concocts a staffing crisis for Santa to solve with the aid of ‘Teddy Bear in Toyland’ (SCF #91, 1950) after which we enjoy a moment of sober reflection as ‘The Christmas Story’ – according to St. Matthew’s gospel and illuminated by Alberto Giolitti – (A Christmas Treasury #1) reminds us that for many people it’s not just about loot, excess and fantasy.

Kelly then ushers us out with a brace of end pieces encompassing a poetic hunt for the old boy and a silent silly symphony from ‘The Carollers’

It absolutely baffles me that Kelly and his peers’ unique and universally top-notch Christmas tales – and Batman’s too for that matter – are not re-released every November for the Yule spending spree. Christmas is all about nostalgia and good old days and there is no bigger sentimental sap on the planet than your average comics punter. And once these books are out there their supreme readability will quickly make converts of the rest of the world.

Just you wait and see…
The Great Treasury of Christmas Comic Book Stories © 2018 Gussoni-Yoe Studio, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Material reprinted: Sleepy Santa © 1948 Belda Record & Publishing Co. Ha Ha Comics #49 © Creston Publications Corporation. Santa and the Pirates © 1953 Promotional Publishing Co. NYC. Christmas at the Rotunda © 1955 Ford Motor Company and Artists and Writers Guild, Inc. Giant Comics #3 © 1957 Charlton Comics Group Christmas Carnival vol. 1 #2 St. John Publishing Corp. ©1954. © Western Printing & Lithographing Co. 1948, 1950, 1951, 1954, 1957, 1960, 1961, 1962. © 1944, 1945, 1946, 1947, Oscar Lebek/Dell Publishing, Western Printing & Lithographing Co.

The Juggler of Our Lady – the Classic Christmas Story

By R. O. Blechman with a Foreword by Jules Feiffer and Introduction by Maurice Sendak (Dover Comics & Graphic Novels)
ISBN: 978-0-486-80030-1

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A truly immaculate confection… 10/10

Christmas is not just about shiny new toys and sparkly knitwear. It’s just as much about unearthing or revisiting old, beloved and almost totally forgotten treasures.

Here’s a superb case in point – a magnificent hardback picture-perfect gift that’s still readily available – thanks to the perspicacious souls at Dover Books…

Oscar Robert Blechman is a glittering star in America’s graphic arts firmament and an international superstar. Brooklyn-born in 1930, he has excelled as cartoonist, illustrator, author, animator/Director, editorial cartoonist, Editorial Director and ad-man.

He’s won awards for his commercials and TV specials and been venerated in an exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art. His anti-Vietnam cartoons graced The Village Voice through the early 1970s whilst his cartoons and illustrations appeared in such prestigious vehicles as Punch, The New Yorker, Trump, Harper’s Bazaar, Esquire, Show, Theater Arts and Humbug.

He’s also produced fascinating graphic narratives such as Georgie and can reasonably claim to have produced one of the very first English-language Graphic Novels… and thus beginneth today’s lesson…

In 1952 Blechman used his groundbreaking and soon-to-be phenomenally influential minimalist line-style – deftly augmented with judicious watercolours – to make a much-told tale all his own.

The Juggler of Our Lady was his first book: initially published by Henry Holt, and superbly fetishized and commemorated through brother-cartoonist Maurice Sendak’s fondly emotional Introduction in this sublime new pocket hardback edition. The slim tome became a landmark in graphic narrative and is beloved by generations.

Anatole France’s 1892 tale Le Jongleur de Notre Dame is probably the most widely accepted version of the original medieval religious-miracle legend but there have been so many others that the story is as much part of most people’s seasonal landscape as Santa Claus or Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Blechman’s reinvigoration retains all the awe and wonder, whilst adding such a potent blend of wry humour, pitiful humility and gentle hope to the mix that it can make a grown man weep. In 1958 his book became an animated Terrytoons TV short with a huge impact when it was adapted by Al Kouzel & Gene Deitch and narrated by that legendary Spirit of Christmas Fun Boris Karloff…

You know the story: Cantalbert is an itinerant juggler who loves his work. He feels that if more people juggled there would less time for war and misery and folk would act better, feel better and be better.

Nobody, however, will listen and the despondent performer – hungry for spirituality – joins a monastery. Even here he does not fit in and is saddened by his lack of suitable talents to venerate The Lord and especially The Virgin Mary…

Everything comes to a head on Christmas Eve when the monks all display the magnificent presents they have made for the Madonna and poor Cantalbert has nothing worthy to give.

Later, when all is quiet, the sad juggler offers the only thing he knows and loves to the statue of The Virgin and something wonderful happens…

Deftly deconstructed and wondrously appreciated in a Foreword by Comics and Cartooning Titan Jules Feiffer, The Juggler of Our Lady is a masterpiece of graphic dexterity and an utterly beguiling experience no lover of the storytelling arts should be without.

Text and illustrations © 1997 R. O. Blechman. Foreword © 1997 2015 Jules Feiffer. Introduction © 1980 Maurice Sendak. All rights reserved.
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