Comics at War


By Denis Gifford (Hawk Books)
ISBN: 978-0-96824-885-6

Very often the books we write about our comics are better than the stories and pictures themselves: memorable, intensely evocative and infused with the debilitating nostalgic joy that only passing years and selective memory bestows.

That’s not meant in any way to denigrate or decry the superb works of the countless -generally unrecognised and generally unlauded – creators who brightened the days of generations of children with fantastic adventures and side-splitting gags in those so flimsy, so easily lost and damaged cheap pamphlets, but rather because of an added factor inherent in these commemorative tomes: by their very existence they add the inestimable value and mystery of Lost, Forgotten or Buried Treasures into the mix.

A perfect example is this copious chronicle released as an anniversary item in 1988 to celebrate the wartime delights rationed out to beleaguered British lads and lasses, compiled by possibly the nation’s greatest devotee and celebrant of childish pastimes and halcyon days.

Denis Gifford was a cartoonist, writer, TV show deviser and historian who loved comics. As both collector and creator he gave his life to strips and movies, acquiring items and memorabilia voraciously, consequently channelling his fascinations into more than fifty books on Film, Television, Radio and Comics; imparting his overwhelming devotion to a veritable legion of fans.

If his works were occasionally short on depth or perhaps guilty of getting the odd fact wrong, he was nevertheless the consummate master of enthusiastic remembrance. He deeply loved the medium in concept and in all its execution, from slipshod and rushed to pure masterpieces with the same degree of passion and was capable of sharing – infecting almost – a casual reader with some of that fierce wistful fire.

With hundreds of illustrative examples culled from his own collection, this volume was released to commemorate the outbreak of World War II and revels in the magnificent contributions to morale generated by a battalion of artists and (usually anonymous) writers, covering the output – in breadth if not depth – of an industry that endured and persevered under appalling restrictions (paper was a vital war resource and stringently rationed), inciting patriotic fervour and providing crucial relief from the stresses and privation of the times.

Abandoning academic rigour in favour of inculcating a taste of the times, this book reprints complete sample strips of the period beginning with the affable tramps and Jester cover stars Basil and Bert (by George Parlett), covering the start of the war in four strips from January to November 1939, before dividing the collection into themed sections such as Be Prepared: with examples of Norman Ward’s Home Guard heroes Sandy and Muddy from Knock-Out and John Jukes’ Marmaduke, the Merry Militiaman from Radio Fun.

At War With the Army displays the ordinary Englishman’s perennial problem with Authority – with episodes of Koko the Pup and Desperate Dan (respectively by Bob MacGillivray and Dudley Watkins from D.C. Thomsons’ Magic and The Dandy); Weary Willie and Tired Tim (from Chips and superbly rendered by Percy Cocking), as well as stunning two-tone and full colour examples from Tip-Top, The Wonder and others.

Tanks a Million! offers selections from the height of the fighting, and brings us head-on into the controversial arena of ethnic stereotyping. All I can say is what I always do: the times were different. Mercifully we’ve moved beyond the obvious institutionalised iniquities of casual racism and sexism (maybe not so much on that last one though?) and are much more tolerant today (unless you’re obese, gay, a smoker, or childless and happy about it), but if antiquated attitudes and caricaturing might offend you, don’t read old comics, or watch vintage films or cartoons – it’s your choice and your loss.

The strip that sparked this tirade is an example of Stymie and his Magic Wishbone from Radio Fun (a long-running strip with a black boy-tramp in the tradition of minstrel shows) from a chapter highlighting the comic strip love-affair with armoured vehicles and including many less controversial examples from Tiger Tim’s Weekly, Knock-Out, Chips and The Dandy, featuring stars such as Our Ernie, Our Gang, Stonehenge, Kit the Ancient Brit and Deed-A-Day Danny.

…And if you think we were hard on innocent and usually allied non-white people just wait till you see the treatment dealt to Germans, Italians and Japanese by our patriotic cartoonists…

At Sea with the Navy! highlights nautical manoeuvres from Casey Court (Chips, and by Albert Pease); Rip Van Wink (Beano, James Crichton); Lt. Daring and Jolly Roger (from Golden by Roy Wilson; Billy Bunter (Knock-Out by Frank Minnitt); Hairy Dan (Beano, Basil Blackaller) and Pitch and Toss (Funny Wonder, Roy Wilson again) whilst Sinking the Subs takes us below the surface with Our Ernie, Desperate Dan, Koko, Pansy Potter, Alfie the Air Tramp and Billy Bunter.

Britain’s fledgling flying squad takes centre-stage with In the Air with the R.A.F. featuring Freddie Crompton’s Tiny Tots, Korky the Cat from Dandy, The Gremlins (Knock-Out, by Fred Robinson) and yet more Koko the Pup.

Awful Adolf and his Nasty Nazis! demonstrates and deftly depicts just what we all thought about the Axis nations and even indulges in some highly personal attacks against prominent personages on the other side, beginning with Sam Fair’s riotously ridiculing Addie and Hermy, (Beano’s utterly unauthorised adventures of misters Hitler and Goering), whilst Our Ernie, Lord Snooty, Pitch and Toss, Big Eggo (Beano, by Reg Carter), Plum and Duff (Comic Cuts, Albert Pease) and the staggeringly offensive Musso the WopHe’s a Big-a-Da-Flop (Beano, Artie Jackson and others) all cheered up the home-front with macerating mockery.

Doing Their Bit then gathers wartime exploits of the nation’s stars and celebrities (turning Britain’s long love affair with entertainment industry figures into another True Brit bullet at the Boche. Strips featuring Tommy Handley, Arthur Askey, Charlie Chaplin, Jack Warner, Flanagan and Allen, Haver and Lee, The Western Brothers, Sandy Powell, Old Mother Riley (featuring Lucan & McShane), Claude Hulbert, Duggie Wakefield, Joe E. Brown, Harold Lloyd, Lupino Lane and Laurel and Hardy included here were collectively illustrated by Reg and George Parlett, Tom Radford, John Jukes, Bertie Brown, Alex Akerbladh, George Heath, Norman Ward and Billy Wakefield.

The kids themselves are the stars of Evacuation Saves the Nation! as our collective banishment of city-bred children produced a wealth of intriguing possibilities for comics creators.

Vicky the Vacky (Magic, George Drysdale), Our Happy Vaccies (Knock-Out, by Hugh McNeill) and Annie Vakkie (Knock-Out, by Frank Lazenby) showed readers the best way to keep their displaced chins up before Blackout Blues! finds the famous and commonplace alike suffering from night terrors…

Examples here include Grandma Jolly and her Brolly, Will Hay, the Master of Mirth, Ben and Bert, Barney Boko, Crusoe Kids, Grandfather Clock, Constable Cuddlecock and Big Ben and Little Len after which Gas Mask Drill finds the funny side of potential asphyxiation with choice strips such as Stan Deezy, Hungry Horace, Deed-A-Day Danny, Big Eggo, Good King Coke and Cinderella all encountering difficulties with Britain’s most essential useless fashion accessory…

Barrage Balloons! lampoons the giant sky sausages that made life tricky for the Luftwaffe with examples from Luke and Len the Odd-Job Men (Larks and by Wally Robertson), It’s the Gremlins, Alfie the Air Tramp, and In Town this Week from Radio Fun whilst Tuning Up the A.R.P.! deals out the same treatment to the valiant volunteers who patrolled our bombed-out streets after dark. Those Air Raid Precautions patrols get a right (albeit roundly good natured) sending up in strips starring Deed-A-Day Danny, Big Eggo, P.C. Penny, Ben and Bert, Marmy and His Ma, Lord Snooty and his Pals, The Tickler Twins in Wonderland, Our Ernie, Tootsy McTurk, Boy Biffo the Brave and Pa Perkins and his Son Percy.

The girls finally get a go in the vanguard with Wow! Women of War! starring Dandy’s Keyhole Kate and Meddlesome Matty (by Allan Morley and Sam Fair respectively); Dolly Dimple (Magic, Morley again), Tell Tale Tilly, Peggy the Pride of the Force, Pansy Potter the Strongman’s Daughter, Big Hearted Martha Our A.R.P. Nut and Kitty Clare’s Schooldays whilst the Home Guard stumble to the fore once more in a section entitled Doing Their Best with examples from Tootsy McTurk (Magic, John Mason), Casey Court, Lord Snooty, Deed-A-Day Danny and Big Eggo.

The peril of imminent invasion was always in the air and the embattled cartoonists sensibly responded with measured insolence. Hop It, Hitler! displays our pen-pushers’ fighting spirit with examples such as Bamboo Town (Dandy, Chick Gordon), Sandy and Muddy, Pansy Potter, the astonishingly un-PC Sooty Snowball, Hair-Oil Hal Your Barber Pal and Stonehenge Kit, before espionage antics are exposed in I Spy Mit Mein Little Eye! in Laurie and Trailer the Secret Service Men plus even more Sandy and Muddy, Herr Paul Pry, Big Eggo and Lord Snooty.

Wireless War! celebrates both radio stars and enemy broadcasts with a selection from Tommy Handley, Troddles and his Pet Tortoise Tonky-Tonk, Happy Harry and Sister Sue, Crackers the Perky Pup, Our Gang and a couple of examples of John Jukes’ sublimely wicked Radio Fun strip Lord Haw-Haw – The Broadcasting Humbug from Hamburg.

To Blazes With the Firemen! is a rather affectionate and jolly examination of one of the toughest of home front duties with a selection of strips including Podge (whose dad was a fire-fighter, drawn by Eric Roberts for Dandy), Casey Court, Pansy Potter and In Town This Week.

Rationing was never far from people’s minds and an art-form where the ultimate reward was usually “a slap-up feed” perfectly lambasted the necessary measures in many strips. Examples here include The Bruin Boy from Tiny Tim’s Weekly; Freddy the Fearless Fly (Dandy, Allan Morley), Cyril Price’s vast ensemble cast from Casey Court (courtesy of Chips), Our Ernie and Dudley Watkins’ Peter Piper from Magic, all in need of Luvly Grub!

Under the miscellaneous sub-headings of Salvage!, Comical Camouflage!, Workers Playtime! and Allies, strips featuring Ronnie Roy the India-rubber Boy, Ding Dong Dally, Desperate Dan, Tin-Can Tommy the Clockwork Boy, Big Hearted Arthur and Dicky Murdoch and other stalwarts all gather hopeful momentum as the Big Push looms and this gloriously inventive and immensely satisfying compilation heads triumphantly towards its conclusion.

V for Victory! sees a telling gallery of strips celebrating the war’s end and better tomorrows; featuring final sallies from Casey Court, Weary Willie and Tired Tim, a stunning Mickey Mouse Weekly cover by Victor Ibbotson, It’s That Man Again – Tommy Handley, Laurel and Hardy and – from Jingles – Albert Pease has the last word with ‘Charlie Chucklechops Speaking… About New Uses for Old War materials’

Some modern fans find a steady diet of these veteran classics a little samey and formulaic – indeed even I too have trouble with some of the scripts – but the astonishing talents of the assembled artists here just cannot be understated. These are great works by brilliant comic stylists which truly stand the test of time. Moreover, in these carefully selected, measured doses these tales salvaged from a desperate but somehow more pleasant and even enviable time are utterly enchanting. This book is long overdue for a new edition and luckily for you is still available through many internet retailers.
Text and compilation © 1988 Denis Gifford. © 1988 Hawk Books. All rights reserved.

Willie and Joe: the WWII Years


By Bill Mauldin, edited by Todd DePastino (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-838-1 (HB)                                978-1-60699-439-9 (PB)

During World War II a talented, ambitious young man named William Henry “Bill” Mauldin (29/10/1921 – 22/01/2003) fought “Over There” with the 45th Division of the United States Infantry as well as many other fine units of the army. He learned to hate war and love his brother soldiers – and the American fighting man loved him back.

During his time in the service he produced civilian cartoons for the Oklahoma City Times and The Oklahoman, and intimately effective and authentic material for his Company periodical, 45th Division News, as well as Yank and Stars and Stripes: the US Armed Forces newspapers. Soon after, his cartoons were being reproduced in newspapers across Europe and America.

They mostly featured two slovenly “dogfaces” (a term he popularised) giving their trenchant and laconic view of the war from the muddied tip of the pointiest of Sharp Ends. Willie and Joe, much to the dismay of the brassbound, spit-and-polish military martinets and diplomatic doctrinaires, became the unshakable, everlasting image of the American soldier: continually revealed in all ways and manners the upper echelons of the army would prefer remained top secret.

Willie and Joe even became the subject of two films (Up Front – 1951 and Back at the Front – 1952) whilst Willie made the cover of Time Magazine in 1945, when 23-year old Mauldin won his first Pulitzer Prize.

In 1945 a collection of his drawings, accompanied by a powerfully understated and heartfelt documentary essay, was published by Henry Holt and Co. Up Front was a sensation, telling the American public about the experiences of their sons, brothers, fathers and husbands in a way no historian would or did. A biography, Back Home, followed in 1947.

Mauldin’s anti-war, anti-Idiots-in-Charge-of-War views became increasingly unpopular during the Cold War and despite being a War Hero his increasingly political cartoon work fell out of favour and those efforts are the subject of companion volume Willie & Joe: Back Home. Mauldin left the business to become a journalist and illustrator.

He was a film actor for a while (appearing in Red Badge of Courage with Audie Murphy, among other movies); a war correspondent during the Korean War and – after an unsuccessful campaign for Congress in 1956 – finally returned to newspaper cartooning in 1958.

He retired in 1991 after a long, glittering and award-studded career. Mauldin only drew Willie and Joe four times in that entire period (for an article on the “New Army” in Life magazine; for the funerals of “Soldier’s Generals” Omar Bradley and George C. Marshall; and to eulogize Milton Caniff). His fondest wish had been to kill the iconic dogfaces off on the final day of World War II, but Stars and Stripes vetoed it.

The Willie and Joe cartoons and characters are some of the most enduring and honest symbols of all military history. Every Veterans Day in Peanuts, from1969 to 1999, fellow veteran Charles Schulz had Snoopy turn up at Mauldin’s house to drink Root Beers and tell war stories with an old pal.

When you read Sgt. Rock you’re looking at Mauldin’s legacy, and Archie Goodwin even drafted the shabby professionals for a couple of classy guest-shots in Star-Spangled War Stories (see Showcase Presents the Unknown Soldier).

This immense mostly monochrome compendium (with some very rare colour and sepia items) comes in hardback, softcover and even as an eBook: collecting all Mauldin’s known wartime cartoons and featuring not only the iconic dog-face duo, but also the drawings, illustrations, sketches and gags that led, over 8 years of army life, to their creation.

Mauldin produced most of his work for Regimental and Company newspapers whilst under fire: perfectly capturing the life and context of fellow soldiers – also under battlefield conditions – and gave a glimpse of that unique and bizarre existence to their families and civilians at large, despite constant military censorship and even face-to-face confrontations with Generals such as George Patton, who was perennially incensed at the image the cartoonist presented to the world.

Fortunately, Supreme Commander Eisenhower, if not an actual fan, at least recognised the strategic and morale value of Mauldin’s Star Spangled Banter and Up Front features with indomitable everymen Willie and Joe

This far removed in time, many of the pieces here might need historical context for modern readers and such is comprehensively provided by the notes section to the rear of the volume. Also included are unpublished pieces and pages, early cartoon works, and rare notes, drafts and sketches.

Most strips, composites and full-page gags, however, are sublimely transparent in their message and meaning: lampooning entrenched stupidity and cupidity, administrative inefficiency and sheer military bloody-mindedness whilst highlighting the miraculous perseverance and unquenchable determination of the ordinary guys to get the job done while defending their only inalienable right – to gripe and goof off whenever the brass weren’t around…

Moreover, Mauldin never patronises the civilians or demonises the enemy: the German and Italians are usually in the same dismal boat as “Our Boys” and only the war and its brass-bound conductors are worthy of his inky ire…

Let’s just hope that in these tense, “ten-seconds-to-doomsday” times the latest batch of brass-hats and political ass-hats keep that in mind and remember what’s always at stake here…

Alternating trenchant cynicism, moral outrage, gallows humour, absurdist observation, shared miseries, staggering sentimentality and the total shock and awe of still being alive every morning, this cartoon catalogue of the Last Just War is a truly breathtaking collection no fan, art-lover, historian or humanitarian can afford to miss.

…And it will make you cry and laugh out loud too.

With a fascinating biography of Mauldin that is as compelling as his art, the mordant wit and desperate camaraderie of his work is more important than ever in an age where increasingly cold and distanced leaders send ever-more innocent lambs to further foreign fields for slaughter. With this volume (and the aforementioned Willie & Joe: Back Home) we should finally be able to restore Mauldin and his works to the forefront of graphic consciousness, because tragically, his message is never going to be out of date…
© 2011 the Estate of William Mauldin. All right reserved.

Father Kissmass and Mother Claws


By Bel Mooney & Gerald Scarfe (Hamish Hamilton Ltd.)
ISBN: 978-0-24111-700-2

If you’ve finally grown up, Christmas is traditionally a time for tales of monsters and horrors so I’ve dredged up and re-exhumed this wonderful and superbly chilling graphic slice of satire from a time when horrific ghastly beasts stalked through Britain, sowing discomfort and dread where e’er they trod, without a clue what they were doing or a thought for the poor souls they stepped on and destroyed.

In this cold, dark country, the brittle, demonic and so very cruel Mother Claws broods and frets. It’s time once again to put something in the stockings of the Nation’s inhabitants, but she Doesn’t Want To.

She would rather cut things from their stockings – and so she does, with her corpulent, greedy Father Kissmass egging her on.

So very carried away are they, that her herd of Tamedeer – sycophantic self-servers though they be, even Tebbie and Hestle – rebel.

On Christmas Eve they ignore her whips and pull her sleigh to a hovel with a star above it. A homeless couple, with a special newborn baby, reach out to her needing just a little help…

Father Kissmass And Mother Claws was produced at the height of the Thatcher regime and uses dark, strident imagery from brilliant ethical Rottweiler Gerald Scarfe to concoct a savage sidebar to the nativity story for devastating satirical effect.

This swingeing allegory of Thatcher’s Britain is infested with her cabinet’s “Big Beasts” tellingly depicted as cowed pack animals by Scarfe’s flick-knife art, whilst Bel Mooney’s prose is as comforting as a velveteen cosh. This is the best of what graphic satire can do. It’s just a pity today’s leaders don’t warrant the same loving attentions…

No wait, look at the papers! It’s a Christmas miracle! They bloody do. Just squint a bit and tell yourself the names have been changed to protect the far-from-innocent…
Text © 1985 Bel Mooney. Illustrations © 1985 Gerald Scarfe. All Rights Reserved.

Temperance


By Cathy Malkasian (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-323-1

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: a charismatic leader drags an entire nation into a phony war, manipulating facts, twisting good people’s lives, destroying their innocence and fomenting an atmosphere of sustained paranoia and unthinking patriotism – if not literal jingoistic madness.

Then he shuffles out of the picture and lets his – generally incompetent – successors deal with the mess he’s created: those remnants divided equally into well-meaning but clueless ditherers and now-fanatical disciples who think only they can run the show…

The land is in turmoil. Pa is raising a ruckus trying to get his monstrous ark built before the ruthless invaders begin the final attack. Eldest girl Peggy and little Minerva follow as he carves a wake of destructive energy through the landscape. Pa has galvanised the local villagers and they await his command to enter the fortress-city within the monolithic edifice, dubbed “Blessedbowl.”

When Pa begins once more to assault his oldest lass, only hapless Minerva and the trees are witness to the unleashed savagery. Suddenly, a young man rushes to Peg’s rescue, captivating forever the cowering Min. His name is Lester, but despite a terrific struggle the rescuer is no match for Pa’s maniacal vigour. The young man is left brain-damaged and maimed.

Pa bids Min see to Lester. The Doomsayer is lost in his preparations again. The Crisis has arrived…

Three decades pass. Min has married Lester and a thriving community exists within Blessedbowl, a permanent subsistence/siege economy built on paranoia: isolated and united by a common foe that has never been seen and is therefore utterly terrifying.

Moses-like, Pa remained behind when the ark was sealed, to fight a rearguard action. Min is now his regent, efficiently running the closed ecology and economy, bolstered by the devoted attention of Lester, the amnesiac war-hero who lost so much when the invisible enemy launched their final assault…

Min controls the community through reports from the distant front and Lester guards the city within Blessedbowl’s hull. But now his befuddled memory is clearing, and Min, hopelessly in love with him, faces the threat that all that has been so slowly built may come crashing swiftly down…

And this is just the tip of the iceberg in a vast story that – despite being almost a decade old – could well be the best thing you’ll read this year. Created during America’s longest-running war (9 years and by some assessments still running but with another name…) this multi-layered, incisive parable examines how families and countries can be twisted by love, fear and the craziest lies leaders can concoct and yet still seemingly prosper.

As much mystical generational fantasy as veiled allegory, Temperance will open your eyes on so many levels. As events spiral beyond all control the astounding outcome, whilst utterly inevitable will also be a complete surprise… and just wait until you discover the identity of the eponymous narrator…

Mythical, mystical, metaphorical, lyrical, even poetic, here is a modern, timeless tuned-in epic blending Shakespearean passions with soft Orwellian terrors. King Lear and 1984 are grandparents to this subtly striking tale of freedom and honour – personal and communal – foolishly but willingly surrendered to a comfortable, expedient slavery.

Combining trenchant social commentary with spiritually uplifting observation, illustrated in the softest pencil tones – reminiscent of English World War II cartoons (particularly Pont and Bateman, but also the animations of Halas and Batchelor) – this is joy to read, a delight to view and a privilege to own.

We must all do so …
© 2010 Cathy Malkasian. All right reserved. This edition © 2010 Fantagraphics Books, Inc.

Satania


By Vehlmann & Kerascoët, translated by Joe Johnson (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-68112-143-7

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Daring Dip into the Dark Underside of Life… 9/10

Vehlmann was only born in 1972 yet his prodigious canon of work (from 1998 to the present) has earned him the soubriquet of “the Goscinny of the 21st Century”. As Fabien Vehlmann, he entered the world in Mont-de-Marsan and grew up in Savoie, growing up to study business management before taking a job with a theatre group.

In 1996, after entering a writing contest in Spirou, he caught the comics bug and two years later published – with illustrative collaborator Denis Bodart – a mordantly quirky and sophisticated portmanteau period crime comedy entitled Green Manor. From there on his triumphs grew to include amongst others Célestin Speculoos for Circus, Nicotine Goudron for l’Écho des Savanes and major league property Spirou and Fantasio.

Since then his star has grown brighter and brighter, especially on his collaborations with husband-&-wife team Kerascoët: Marie Pommepuy and Sébastien Cosset, who work in advertising, animation and fashion when not rendering such glorious comics treats as Beauty, Beautiful Darkness, Miss Don’t Touch Me and the epically expansive Dungeons franchise of inter-linked albums.

Their most recent joint escapade is Satanie, translated into English as the equally disquieting Satania. A seemingly bright and shiny bauble, the tale offers a dark glimpse into inner worlds both physical and psychical as troubled Charlie convinces a disparate band of potholers to help her find her missing brother Christopher.

Rendered in a captivating primitivist style that conceals a potent emotional punch, the unfolding saga finds young Charlotte, elderly priest Father Monsore, Mr Lavergne, Legoff and a handful of other intrepid souls delving deep beneath a mountain in search of the young scientist.

Scientist Christopher held radical evolutionary theories positing that Hell is real and exists far beneath the earth, populated by corporeal beings adapted over eons of natural selection to their harsh subterranean existence. The devils and demons of history and superstition are simply fellow creatures awaiting our discovery and classification and extended arms of friendship and welcome…

However, when a flash flood fills the caverns and forces the explorers deep into uncharted regions, an incredible series of tribulations and revelations begin. A fantastic underground odyssey with lost human civilisations, incredible monsters and unimaginable macro-organisms is boldly undertaken, but as ill-fortune and death constantly dog the party, the survivors quickly realise that although the fantastic creatures they encounter may not be supernally evil, the god-fearing humans have brought their own demons with them into a fresh kind of hell …

An astounding voyage of discovery with breathtaking vistas and inventions, Satania explores the human condition in ways both uncomfortable and wondrous.
© Editions Soleil/Vehlmann/Kerascoët 2016. © 2017 NBM for the English Translation.

For more information and other great reads see http://www.nbmpub.com/

The Complete Peanuts volume 2: 1953-1954


By Charles Schulz (Canongate Books/Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-84767-032-8 (Canongate):        978-1-56097-614-1 (Fantagraphics)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: The ultimate Family Treat… 9/10

Peanuts is unequivocally the most important comics strip in the history of graphic narrative. It is also the most deeply personal.

Cartoonist Charles M Schulz crafted his moodily hilarious, hysterically introspective, shockingly philosophical epic for half a century. He published 17,897 strips from October 2nd 1950 to February 13th 2000, dying from the complications of cancer the day before his last strip was published…

At its height, the strip ran in 2,600 newspapers in 75 countries, translated into 21 languages. Many of those venues are still running perpetual reprints, as they have ever since his departure. Book collections, a merchandising mountain and television spin-offs made the publicity-shy artist a billionaire.

None of that is really the point. Peanuts – a title Schulz loathed, but one the syndicate forced upon him – changed the way comics strips were received and perceived, and showed that cartoon comedy could have edges and nuance as well as pratfalls and punch lines.

Following a moving reminiscence from legendary newsman Walter Cronkite, this second gargantuan (218 x 33x 172 mm) landscape hardback compendium (also available in digital formats) offers in potent monochrome the third and fourth years in the life of Charlie Brown and Co: an ever-evolving procession of insight and hilarity in still-fresh episodes seldom seen or reprinted once the strip had achieved its global domination.

Here a still rather outgoing and jolly Charlie Brown and high-maintenance – but essentially dog-like – mutt Snoopy interacted with bombastic Shermy and mercurial Patty all out doing kid things. Now, however, the supporting cast had expanded to include Violet, Beethoven-obsessed musical prodigy Schroeder, obnoxious “fussbudget” Lucy, and infant addition Linus – an actual architectural idiot savant.

They are memorably joined in this volume by human dust storm Pig-pen as well as the invention of a certain mystic tranquiliser dubbed the Security Blanket…

By the end of 1952 the daily diet of rapid-fire gags had evolved from raucous slapstick to surreal, edgy, psychologically barbed introspection, crushing peer-judgements and deep rumination in a world where kids – and certain animals – were the only actors, and even inanimate objects occasionally got into the action with malice aforethought

The relationships, however, were increasingly evolving: deep, complex and absorbing even though “Sparky” Schulz never deviated from his core message to entertain…

The first Sunday page had debuted on January 6th 1952: a standard half-page slot offering more measured fare than the daily. Both thwarted ambition and explosive frustration became part of the strip’s signature denouements and continued to develop. There are some pure gem examples of running gag mastery in here too, such as Snoopy’s extended cold war with baby Linus over treats, or Lucy’s hidden talents for golf and skipping…

Perennial touchstones on display herein include playing, playing pranks, playing sports, playing in mud, playing in snow, playing musical instruments, learning to read, the new domestic sensation of television, coping with kites, teasing each other, making baffled observations and occasionally acting a bit too much like grown-ups.

The soft-soap ostracization of Charlie Brown begins and his feelings of alienation are well explored but in truth Lucy is the star here, with episodes seeing her expelled from Kindergarten as her insufferable know-it-allness grows. There’s also repeated evidence of what passes for her softer side too, as her fascination with Schroeder develops into a true crush, but, oh!, what she does to her little brother when nobody’s watching…

The first hints of Snoopy’s incredible inner mindscape can be seen here and, as previously mentioned, the uncleanable kid Pig-pen arrives and shakes up everybody’s world…

And best of all, auteur Schulz is in brilliant imaginative form crafting a myriad of purely graphic visual gags any surrealist would give their nose-teeth to have come up with…

By the end of this book Charlie Brown – although still a benign dreamer with his eyes affably affixed on the stars – is solidly locked on the path to his eternal loser, singled-out-by-fate persona and the sheer diabolical wilfulness of Lucy starts sharpening itself on everyone around her…

Adding to the enjoyment and elucidation, a copious ‘Index’ offers instant access to favourite scenes you’d like to see again, after which Gary Groth reviews the life of ‘Charles M. Schulz: 1922-2000’ rounding out our glimpse of the dolorous graphic genius with intimate revelations and reminiscences…

Still readily available, this volume offers the perfect example of a masterpiece in motion: comedy gold and social glue gradually metamorphosing in an epic of spellbinding graphic mastery which became part of the fabric of billions of lives, and which continues to do so long after its maker’s passing.

How can you possibly resist?
The Complete Peanuts: 1953-1954 (Volume Two) © 2004 Peanuts Worldwide, LLC. Foreword © 2004 Walter Cronkite. “Charles M. Schulz: 1922 to 2000” © 2004 Gary Groth. All rights reserved.

Rick O’Shay and Hipshot: The Great Sunday Pages


By Stan Lynde (Tempo Books)
ISBN: 0-448-12522-6

Once upon a time, Westerns were the most popular genre in American mass entertainment, with novels, magazines, films, radio shows, TV series, comicbooks and of course newspaper strips all devoted to “Men Doin’ What They Gotta Do”: Riding Ranges, Rounding up stuff, Gun-fighting and all the other timeless iconic cultural activities we all think we know…

Over the decades hundreds of Western strips have graced the pages and increased the circulation of newspapers; from singing cowboy film-star Roy Rogers to Red Ryder, Casey Ruggles, the Lone Ranger, Lance and so many more. Even staid Britain got into the act with such lost masterpieces as Buffalo Bill, Matt Marriot, Gun Law and Wes Slade ranking highest amongst fans around the world…

With such a plethora of material concentrated in one genre it’s no surprise that different takes would inevitably develop. Thus, alongside The Big Country, High Noon, Soldier Blue or Unforgiven there blossomed less traditional fare such as Destry Rides Again, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or Blazing Saddles.

Falling straight into the same comedy Western territory as The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw and Support Your Local Sheriff – whilst predating both – came one of the earliest and most successful modern gag-a-day continuity strips, blending iconic scenarios with memorable characters, playing out their daily antics against a spectacular backdrop of lavishly illustrated natural beauty.

Stan Lynde was born in Billings, Montana on 23rd September 1931, the son of a sheep farmer who grew up with a passion for comic strips. His first efforts appeared in the High School paper and after studying journalism at Montana State he served in the Navy from 1951-1955. During that tour of duty he created the strip Ty Foon for a Services magazine.

After the Navy, Lynde tried a succession of jobs and ended up in New York working for the Wall Street Journal. Whilst there he created Rick O’Shay which eventually found a home with the mighty Chicago Tribune Syndicate (home of Gasoline Alley, Terry and the Pirates and many others). The feature premiered as a Sunday page on April 27th 1958, adding a daily black-&-white strip from 19th May that year.

Lynde produced the strip until 1977 when he left the Syndicate to produce another wonderful Western Latigo (1979-1983). Tribune-News Syndicate owned Rick O’Shay outright and continued the feature with substitutes Marian Dern, Alfredo Alcala and Mel Keefer, but it just wasn’t the same and the strip was allowed to die in 1981.

Rick O’Shay took Western conventions to sly and winningly whimsical extremes as it followed the life of Rick, Deputy Marshal of the little town of Conniption. The series was set in the rugged Montana countryside where Lynde grew up and to which he returned as soon as the strip proved successful enough to support him.

Conniption was too small for a full Marshal and whatever order needed keeping was easily handled by the easy-going Deputy Rick and his friend; grizzled veteran gunslinger Hipshot Percussion. Apart from drinking, fighting and gambling, the township’s most serious problem was criminally bad puns, personified in the likes of saloon owner Gaye Abandon, newspaper editor Clarion McCall, hotelier Auntie Climax, town drunk Mooch McHooch, gunsmith Cap’n Ball, banker Mort Gage, gambler Deuces Wilde and a rather feisty young ‘un dubbed Quyat Burp.

The town’s spiritual needs were catered to by Reverend Jubal Lee and the local Indian tribe was led by Chief Horse’s Neck

As years passed the dailies began spoofing contemporary events such as the James Bond craze, pop music and TV shows but the Sunday episodes (such as the grand selection from 1972-1976 reprinted in this paperback sized, but regrettably monochrome collection) retained their integrity and continued to spoof the traditions and shibboleths of the mythical Old West.

Bright and breezy slapstick rib-ticklers and laconic, tongue-in-cheek jokes involving drunks, card-games, guys joshing with each other, the malicious recalcitrance of horses and other inanimate objects resonated beside perennial duels and showdowns. Hipshot facing down a succession of goofy young wannabes regularly called the old gun-hawk out to steal his rep played and replayed continuously; all set against the breathtaking geography of Montana’s “Big Sky Country”…

Lynde moved to Ecuador and continued working in the Western genre, producing the strip Grass Roots, new material for Swedish magazine Fantomen, assorted graphic novels and – after regaining the rights to Rick O’Shay for his own Cottonwood Publishing company – new works and chronological collections of this classic strip until his untimely death in August 2013.

This nifty and delightful book from 1976 actually belonged to my wife until I took greedy full-possession of it: part of that glorious 1970s era of easily concealable paperback collections featuring classic strips like Peanuts and The Perishers and so many other magical ways to lose yourself whilst teachers droned on around you in interminable obliviousness.

Most of the books were even returned at the end of term, although some unscrupulous educators operated a “confiscation is forever” policy…

Fun and fulsome entertainment, this little gem won’t be easy to track down, but if giggles, guffaws and gunfights are your thing you’ll definitely want to round up those later Rick O’Shay Cottonwood releases and hopefully his family will be able to convince some major publisher – digital or otherwise – to get these magical strips and yarns into comprehensive mainstream collections for comics posterity…
© 1972, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976 The Chicago Tribune. All Rights Reserved.

Pyongyang – A Journey in North Korea


By Guy Delisle (Drawn & Quarterly Books/Jonathan Cape)
ISBN: 978-0-22407-990-7

The world is always on the brink of extinction. That’s just the way it is. However, it’s perhaps comforting to be reminded that even the most demonised of boogeymen are fundamentally human too. So let’s take a peek at some graphic reportage from a temporary insider once au fait with and allowed access to a nation currently running equal first in the highly-competitive “Earth’s craziest ruler” stakes…

The only things I knew about North Korea I picked up from too many comics (mostly American) and television, so this engaging book was a rather surprising delight. As much lyrical travelogue as pithy autobiography, it relates the bemused culture shock of inveterate traveller and Canadian animator Guy Delisle, who, whilst possessing a French work-permit, was invited behind what was once dubbed “the Bamboo Curtain” to train and supervise Korean artists as a film production supervisor.

Cheap animators, as you are probably well-aware, are one of the few resources that North Korea can use as a means of securing capital from the decadent West – well, at least at the time this anxious odyssey was recorded…

What Delisle discovered and illustrates here both reinforces and explodes much of the modern mythology surrounding the world’s only communist dynasty.

Using a simplified, utilitarian style he depicts and deconstructs an utterly alien environment that is nevertheless populated with people who are so very similar to ourselves, even though the citizens do their utmost not to let it show. Pyongyang is stuffed with nuggets of revelation, dryly observed by the innocuous author.

Gently-paced and often dream-like in quality, the humorous tone and genteel accessibility of the illustration accentuates an oddly-strictured, constantly buttoned-down sense of foreboding.

Allowed only one book (in his case, perhaps unwisely, Orwell’s 1984) which must be donated to the State on leaving the country, and a CD Walkman (as personal radios are banned) Delisle’s airport interrogation is sheer mental torture.

Only once we’ve been thoroughly immersed in the culture and experienced the personal foibles of the limited number people he is allowed to meet does the placidly compliant Delisle surprise us by revealing that he risked everything by rashly smuggling in a tiny radio so he could get more than state-controlled information – and entertainment!

Subtly playing with the ominous reputation of part of “The Axis of Evil”, Delisle has produced a readable, gentle, non-discriminating reverie that informs and charms with surprising effect.

In this period of heightened thermonuclear tensions, this is a tale more timely than ever.
© 2003, 2005 Guy Delisle and L’Association. All Rights Reserved.

The Great Anti-War Cartoons


By many & various, edited by Craig Yoe (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-150-3

After watching far too much news, I dug this book off my shelves. It seemed somehow appropriate…

You’ll hear a lot about the pen being mightier than the sword regarding The Great Anti-War Cartoons, but sadly it’s just not true.

Nothing seems able to stop determined governments, outraged religions and/or rich, greedy – and apparently duly elected, raving mad – bastards from sending the young and idealistic to their mass-produced deaths, especially those innocents still afflicted with the slightest modicum of patriotism or sense of adventure.

Our own currently escalating and deteriorating global situation (but isn’t it always?) proves that mankind is always far too ready to take up arms, and far too reluctant to give peace a chance, especially when a well-oiled publicity machine and vested media interests gang up on the men and women in the street going “yeah, but…”

We’re all susceptible to the power of a marching beat played on fife and drum…

At least here amongst these 220 plus cartoons and graphic statements we see that rationalism or conscientious objectivity or pacifism or even simple self-interested isolationism are as versed in the art of pictorial seduction as the power and passion of jingoism and war-fever.

All art – and most especially cartooning – has the primitive power to bore deep into the soul, just as James Montgomery Flagg’s iconic Uncle Sam poster “Your Country Needs You” so effectively did to millions of young Americans during the Great War.

How satisfying then to see his is the very first anti-war cartoon in this incredible compilation of images focusing on the impassioned pleas of visual communicators trying to avoid body-counts or at least reduce bloodshed.

The Great Anti-War Cartoons gathers a host of incredibly moving, thought-provoking, terrifying, but – I’m gutted to say, ultimately ineffective – warnings, scoldings and pleas which may have moved millions of people, but never stopped or even gave pause to one single conflict…

Editor Craig Yeo divides these potently unforgettable images into a broad variety of categories and I should make it clear that not all the reasons for their creation are necessarily pacifistic: some of the most evocative renderings here are from creators who didn’t think War was Bad per se, but rather felt that the specific clash in question was none of their homeland’s business.

However with such chapters as Planet War, Man’s Inhumanity to Man, The Gods of War, Profiteers, Recruitment and Conscription, The Brass, The Grunts, Weapons of War, The Battle Rages On, The Long March, Famine, The Anthems of War, The Horrors of War, The Suffering, The Families and Children of War, The Aftermath, Victory Celebration, Medals, Disarmament, Resistance and Peace we witness immensely talented people of varying beliefs responding on their own unique terms to organised slaughter, and for every tut-tut of the Stay-at-Homers there are a dozen from genuinely desperate and appalled artists who just wanted the horror to end.

With incisive examinations of shared symbology and recurring themes, these monochrome penmen have utilised their brains and talents in urgent strivings to win their point (there is also a fascinating section highlighting the impact and energy of the Colors of War) but the most intriguing aspect of this superb collection is the sheer renown and worth of the contributors.

Among the 119 artists include (120 if you count Syd Hoff and his nom-de-plume “Redfield” as two separate artists) are Sir John Tenniel, Caran d’Ache, Bruce Bairnsfather, Herbert Block, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Ron Cobb, “Ding” Darling, Billy DeBeck, Jerry Robinson, Albrecht Dürer, Art Spiegelman, Robert Crumb, Rube Goldberg, Honore Daumier, Goya, George Grosz, Bill Mauldin, Gerald Scarfe, Ralph Steadman, Thomas Nast and most especially the incredibly driven Winsor McCay.

I’ve scandalously assumed that many of the older European draughtsmen won’t be that well known, despite their works being some of the most harrowing, and their efforts – although perhaps wasted on people willing to listen to reason anyway – are cruel and beautiful enough to make old cynics like me believe that this time, this time, somebody in power will actually do something to stop the madness.

A harsh, evocative and painfully lovely book: seek it out in the hope that perhaps one day Peace will be the Final Solution.

The time has never been more right for cynics like me to be proved wrong…
The Great Anti-War Cartoons and the digitally remastered public domain material are © 2009 Gussoni-Yoe Studio, Inc. All rights reserved.

Explainers


By Jules Feiffer (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN13: 978-1-56097-835-0

Jules Feiffer has always been much more than “just a comic-book guy” even though his credits in the field sound and are suitably impressive. As well as working with Will Eisner on The Spirit, he created his own Sunday strip ‘Clifford’ (1949-51) before eventually settling at the The Village Voice.

Novelist, playwright, animator, children’s book creator (why isn’t there a single-word term for those guys?) and screenwriter, he turned his back on cartooning in 2000, but the 42-year run of his satirical comic strip in The Village Voice ranks as some of the most telling, trenchant, plaintive and perspicacious narrative art in the history of the medium.

The strip, originally entitled Sick, Sick, Sick, and later Feiffer’s Fables, before simply settling on Feiffer was quickly picked up by the Hall Syndicate and garnered a devoted worldwide following.

Over the decades the strip has generated many strip collections – the first book was in 1958 – since premiering. The auteur’s incisive examination of American society and culture, as reflected by and expressed through politics, art, Television, Cinema, work, philosophy, advertising and most especially in the way men and women interact, informed and shaped opinions and challenged accepted thought for generations. They were mostly bloody funny and wistfully sad too – and remain so even today.

Fantagraphics Books began collecting the entire run in 2007 and this first volume of 568 pages covers the period from its start in October 1956 up to the end of 1966. As such, it covers a pivotal period of social, racial and sexual transformation in America and the world beyond its borders and much of that is also – sadly- still painfully germane to today’s readers…

Explainers is a “dipping book”. It’s not something to storm your way through but something to return to over and again. Feiffer’s thoughts and language, his observations and questions are fearsomely eternal – as I’ve already mentioned, it is utterly terrifying how many problems of the 1950s and 1960s still vex us today – and the Battle of the Sexes my generation honestly believed to be almost over still breaks out somewhere every night.

Best of all, Feiffer’s expressive drawing is a masterclass in style and economy all by itself.

If you occasionally resort to Thinking and sometimes wonder about Stuff, this book should be your guide and constant companion… and it will make you laugh.
© 2007 Jules Feiffer. All Rights Reserved.