Author Archive | Bruce Canwell

A TERRY Top Ten

 

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And now for something completely different…

I thought it would be fun to compile a Top 10 of my favorite Terry and the Pirates characters. No small task, that, given the large cast Milton Caniff assembled and the many memorable moments he crafted during the first dozen years of the strip’s existence. I’m exempting Terry, Pat Ryan, and Connie from consideration. Our three heroes, who were on stage from that very first pair of October, 1934 dailies, get an automatic pass into the Hall of Fame. Beyond that, any character is fair game. I calls ’em as I sees ’em, and here’s how I sees ’em:

10) Pop Scott: He brought an early dash of color to the narrative, and was the strip’s first sacrificial lamb, proof that Caniff was willing to use death to amp up the drama.

9) Nasthalia “Nasty” Smythe-Heatherstone: Her dad is a mensch; she’s proof that even the most upright tree can bear rotten fruit. I enjoy the way Caniff made her a thorn in Terry’s side both as a child and, later, as a conniving young woman.

8) Singh-Singh: A great visual: hulking form, bald head, enormous jet-black moustache. A great bit of comedic relief, too.

7) Captain Blaze: The Sundays first come alive when he battles the Dragon Lady, with Terry, Pat, and Connie caught in the middle. A true “pirate,” in every sense of the word.

6) Dude Hennick: Bless Bess, he’s a more devil-may-care leading man than stolid Pat, making him the perfect character to play male lead in Caniff’s his most dramatic storyline. Based on Frank Higgs, Dude is the first character to be based on one of Caniff’s true-life pals – but he’s far from the last.

5) April Kane: From spunky Southern belle to cold-blooded opportunist, no character in Caniff’s vast tapestry undergoes more radical change than darlin’ li’l ol’ April.

4) Captain Judas: His heinous act of 10/05/41 makes him one of comics’ all-time grand villains. I hope Burma put a slug straight through his inky-black heart.

3) The Dragon Lady: Beautiful, complex, calculating. Look at all the myriad ways Caniff used Lai Choi San throughout his Terry tenure and it’s clear what a spectacular creation she is.

2) Big Stoop: I’m a sucker for misunderstood brutes. I’m a sucker for tough guys with unsullied hearts of gold. I’m a sucker for the skillful use of pantomime. Stooper successfully turned the Terrific Three into a Fabulous Foursome.

Annnnnn-n-n-nd, my Number One favorite Terry and the Pirates character…

1) Burma: She hits the strip like a sassy blonde meteor, heating up the comics page as it had never been heated before in the sequence from 03/17/36 – 03/21/36. And ask yourselves this: Who was the star of the prototype Male Call series? And when Caniff spun his final Terry storyline, whose note and newspaper clipping sets up the final week of strips? Burma, both times. For those reasons and more, she’s tops in my book.

* * * * *

I’m certainly not arrogant enough to claim my list is the be-all and end-all: your mileage may (and almost certainly will) vary. If you’d care to submit your own Terry Top 10 to info@loacomics.com, we’ll run responses in future installments.

Favored Son

LilAbner1_medOne of the catalysts that helped create Li’l Abner was the hitchhiking trip undertaken by teenaged Al Capp and his friend, Gus Lee. Determination and a youthful zest for adventure overcame the obstacles created by Capp’s wooden leg as the duo traveled from New England to Memphis, Tennessee via Virginia and Kentucky, meeting a variety of “hill folk” along the way.

Later milestones in Abner’s genesis occurred in New York City: Capp hired on as Ham Fisher’s assistant on Joe Palooka, where he created that strip’s “Big Leviticus” Sunday sequence – during a night out at a theatre in Columbus Circle, a comedic “mountain music” performance made a huge impression on Capp and his wife, Catherine – counseled by artist Paul Fung, Capp worked up his samples and hit the Syndicate trail, ultimately selling Li’l Abner to United Features in 1934.

Yet neither New York nor the Ozarks figured into Capp’s life while his brainchild was in full flower – instead, Capp and his family (Catherine, two daughters, and an adopted son) spent much of each year occupying a sizeable farmhouse in Catherine’s hometown of Amesbury, on the Massachusetts-New Hampshire border. Today, more than three decades after Capp’s passing, Amesbury is remembering its adopted son.

As reported in the Saturday, May 18, 2010 Boston Globe, this quiet town has renamed its amphitheater in the artist’s honor and is looking to develop a Capp Museum. As part of its annual “Amesbury First” festival, four 4′ x 8′ paintings recreating scenes from Capp’s June 24, 1946 Life autobiography-in-comics-form were unveiled (the entire feature appeared on pages 21 to 24 of our first Li’l Abner volume). The jumbo-sized reproductions were created by local artist Jon Mooers under the watchful eye of Capp’s heirs, including his surviving daughter, Julie.

Capp was not the town’s only famed citizen – 19th Century poet John Greenleaf Whittier also resided in Amesbury. The Globe article hints that modern-day Whittier fans may look down their noses at Capp and his rambunctious comic strip; one paragraph in reporter James Sullivan’s piece reads:

“My son or anybody younger wouldn’t really know about [Capp],” says Diane Cole, 56, who is a member of the John Greenleaf Whittier Home Association. “A lot of people don’t make the connection at all.”

The Amesbury Improvement Committee is more bullish on Capp and the tourism potential associated with his name, and artist Mooers expressed this wish for the newly-rechristened amphitheater: “I’d love to find somebody who could donate a bronze statue of Al. I’m a dreamer.”
Only time will tell if dreams can come true. Mooers’s cause may be aided later this year, when PBS devotes a segment of its American Masters series to Al Capp.

And who knows? Perhaps a segment of our readership might find ways to help Amesbury remember one of its favorite sons.

“If You Knew Polly Like I Knew Polly”

In my teens, I’d have said you were nuts had you told me I would fall in love with a comic strip that was named after a flaxen-haired flapper but starred her diminutive, balding, mustachioed father and the family cat.

Of course, you wouldn’t have been nuts, because Polly and Her Pals is indeed one of my fave-raves, and I unleash a real big grin whenever I think about the upcoming Polly Volume 1 in our new, oversized “champagne edition” format.

I got my first taste of Cliff Sterrett’s unique comics vision in 1983, when Fantagraphics treated readers to a five-page black-and-white Polly sampler in Nemo # 1. This oh-so-tantalizing taste revealed a cartoonist with a bouncy, light-hearted comedic style and a dab hand with pantomime. I wanted more of this guy Sterrett … it just took me seven years to get it, in 1990’s two-volume Remco set of full-color Sundays. This was bravura stuff, demonstrating a playful sense of design, delightfully wonky stories and gags, and a consistent surrealistic touch.

I sang Polly‘s praises, and one day in 1991, an In acquaintance mailed me a copy of Merlin Haas’s 1986 “Flying Flounder Review” compendium of Polly dailies, produced for the enjoyment of members of that venerable APA, CAPA-Alpha. Haas’s pamphlet presented “The Mystery of Greystone,” encompassing a run from 06/18/29 to 09/27/29, and the dailies thoroughly charmed me. What a pleasure (though hardly a surprise) to discover Sterrett was as clever at concocting day-to-day continuity as he was at producing stand-alone Sunday work.

A decade later, on vacation in Arizona and shopping in a deeply-stocked comics shop, what to my wondering eyes did appear but a copy of Arcadia Publishing’s 1990 Comic Strip Showcasefeaturing – yes, you guessed it – Polly and Her Pals. Fourteen delicious months of Sterrett dailies from 1930-’31. Heaven!

I never get enough of sweet Polly Perkins, her Maw and Paw, her cousin Ashur Earl, their servant Neewah, and Kitty, who surely deserves a place in Cartoon Cat Valhalla next to Krazy and Felix.

Now I’m doing my bit helping to bring Polly back into print for 21st Century audiences, and how cool is that? If you’re a Pollyologist, you know how cool that is. If you’ve yet to sample the joys of Sterrett’s unique vision, this summer you can discover the coolness for yourself by checking out The Library of American Comics’s Polly and Her Pals Volume 1, served up in a 12″ x 16″ format that showcases this series the way it’s never been showcased before.

The Sunday above—from December 6, 1925—has never been reprinted before.

Our goal is a simple one: we plan on introducing Polly to a whole new batch of pals!

 

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Golden Years: A decade of LOA

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Some said we couldn’t do it…some said we shouldn’t do it…but we did it and now everyone seems glad we did!

Here’s a little behind-the-scenes gossip: when we were planning the Library of American Comics’s release of Little Orphan Annie, we spent a lot of time discussing whether we should go in chronological order, beginning with the 1924 strips that marked Annie’s debut, or whether we should begin in the 1930s, considered by many to be the “golden period” for America’s spunkiest kid. Some Big Names argued for the “golden” approach, while other knowledgeable Annieologists warned it could be difficult to locate all Harold Gray’s earliest strips. We gnawed at the question the way that loveable mutt Sandy gnaws worries an offending thug’s shin-bone.

If you’re reading these words, odds are you know those hours of contemplation and debate led us to begin at the beginning. It took several visits to Boston University’s Mugar Library (and the unstinting assistance of Mugar Archivist J.C. Johnson and Associate Director Sean Noel) plus a little timely assistance from select Annieologists, but our first volume not only reprinted all the original dailies, it also contained a “lost” 1924 strip that had never appeared in any newspaper. During those first few visits to B.U., it was a great delight to be seeing and actually holding Harold Gray’s original artwork. It was great fun, during a later visit, to meet both Jeet Heer and Chester (Yummy Fur) Brown, who were in town pursuing their own lines of Harold Gray-related research.

Now, fortified by having seen strip’s first decade of storylines and character development, we’re positioned to fully appreciate Little Orphan Annie’s “golden period” as fifth volume in the series offers sixteen months of continuity spanning 1933-1935. When Annie gets a taste of show biz during her alliance with Uncle Dan, we’re ready to accept it because we’ve seen her 1926 days performing with the circus. When the Bleeks appear, claiming to be Annie’s parents, we fully appreciate how plausible this could seem to “Daddy” Warbucks, because we watched him live through the 1928 fire that destroyed Miss Asthma’s orphanage, along with all evidence of Annie’s lineage. After Phil O. Bluster and his cronies have wiped out the Warbucks fortune and put Our Heroes on the bum, we have confidence in “Daddy” and Annie’s ability to prevail, because we’ve cheered them on as they’ve survived the machinations of Count DeTour in the 1920s and Tom Bullion’s 1931 financial squeeze play that left them rooming with Maw Green.

The stories in Little Orphan Annie Volume 5, together with Jeet Heer’s latest historical/biographical essay, are a showcase that remind us why Annie remains an enduring American icon.

A+A = X-9

I’ve returned from deep cover. My trenchcoat is back on its hangar; my Sig Sauer P239 concealed carry package has been safely returned to its lock-box; my forged credentials have been burned, the ashes sifted and tossed into three separate dumpsters.

Still, all my derring-do pales before the high-octane espionage and action you’ll find this summer in our first volume of X-9: Secret Agent Corrigan. And when you see the delicious artwork and stories of tradecraft created by that comics team par excellence, Al Williamson and Archie Goodwin, you’ll likely find yourself wishing for a gadget-laden attaché case of your own.

Separately or working together as a team, Al and Archie created a high level of quality that sustained their decades-long reputation as two of the finest craftsmen in the business. Al was born in the United States, the son of a Colombian father and American mother, though at age two he moved to Colombia with his parents; he says he learned to read both Spanish and English through comics, primarily through the Mexican title, Paquin.

As a teenager, again living back in the States, Al studied under Burne Hogarth and befriended Roy Krenkel; he hit EC Comics at age twenty-one years old. He later spent three years as John Prentice’s assistant on Rip Kirby, also pulling uncredited stints on Big Ben Bolt and Dan Flagg, where he teamed with Archie. By 1967, the Williamson/Goodwin team was selected to replace Bob Lewis (the pen-name of Bob Lubbers) on Secret Agent Corrigan, an assignment which benefited from their distinctive creative stamp for the next thirteen years.
Together, Al and Archie pitted Secret Agent X-9, Phil Corrigan, against a seemingly-inexhaustible supply of threats to the free world. Archie’s imaginative plotting and rock-solid characterizations mesh perfectly with Al’s exceptional draftsmanship, detailed rendering, and sense of drama.

If, like me, you love ‘60s spies such as Kelly and Scotty of I Spy, Napoleon Solo, Nick Fury, and the British Johns (Steed and Drake), you’ll likely be glad to add Phil Corrigan to their ranks. So keep a keen eye out for X-9: Secret Agent Corrigan Volume 1!

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Time Changes Everything

I noticed that DC Comics’s “trinity” titles will soon be celebrating major milestones: Supermanand Batman are both reaching their 700th issues, with Wonder Woman arriving at #600. Certainly, an enduring legacy has been shaped by those characters and the many fine creators who have worked on them.

Still, these anniversaries remind me how immense it seemed to me as a kid in 1970, when The Fantastic Four reached their centennial. A hundred issues—wow! Now I think about the length of time I’ve been involved with comics – as a reader, a fan, and a writer – and I say “Wow!” for different reasons.

Let’s take that 1970 FF anniversary as a starting point: forty years have passed between that issue and today. Start at 1970 and go forty years back from there—welcome to 1930. Think about what’s going on (and what is yet to go on!) in comics at that time:

Milton Caniff is still two years from moving to New York; Dickie Dare is three years away, Terry and The Pirates four.

It’s been only a year since Popeye walked on stage at Thimble Theatre to utter the immortal words, “Ja think I’m a cowboy?”

The Shadow’s pulp adventures don’t begin until 1931; Doc Savage and King Kong both bow in 1933.

Kolor Krazy Kat Sundays are five years in the future.

Likewise, it will be five years before George McManus meets and hires Zeke Zekley to assist him on Bringing Up Father.

And oh, by the way, those comic book characters with milestones in 2010? None of them exist yet—there’s an eight-year gap between where we’re standing in 1930 and the release of Action Comics # 1.

What’s the point of this little exercise? It may make you feel old…or it may make you feel good. No matter if you came to comics in time to buy FF # 100 off the spinner racks—or to seeDoonesbury to take on the Nixon White House—or for Frank Miller’s Daredevil—or for the launch of Calvin & Hobbes—you have participated in a lot of comics history. And together, we’re fortunate to be here in 2010, a time when the breadth and depth of that history is being expanded even as it is being captured and preserved for future generations by The Library of American Comics and our friendly competitors, as well as the good persons behind DC and Dark Horse’s many Archive series and Marvel’s Masterworks.

Yes, we’re growing older – but there are still reasons to say, “Wow!”

Genius, Isolated: The Life and Art of Alex Toth

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We’ve been keeping this project under wraps for the past year, but it’s time to release this little note from the “Coming Attractions” Department: this fall sees the release of a big stand-alone project that will bookend 2008’s Scorchy Smith & The Art of Noel Sickles. It’s a little number we call Genius, Isolated: The Life & Art of Alex Toth.

Odds are you recognize Alex as one of the true icons of 20th Century comics art, and know the broad strokes that comprise his career: a working professional artist by his late teens; set the industry on its ear working for DC and Standard Comics between 1947 and 1954; did incredible work at Dell, particularly his classic and definitive Zorro; migrated into animation, and is perhaps best known for his designs for Hanna-Barbera Studios’s Space Ghost, The Herculoids, and Super Friends; and marked a return to comics in the 1970s and 1980s, doing new work for DC and also publishing his much-beloved, creator-owned Bravo for Adventure. He ended his career feeling largely disillusioned with the comics of the late 20th and early 21st Centuries, though he continued to comment on the industry through forums such as Comic Book Artist.

There is, of course, much more to Alex’s story, and we’ll bring it to you in Genius, Isolated. This book is being produced with the cooperation of Alex’s family. We’re also hearing from well-known “Friends of Alex,” as well as folks close to him who have never before spoken publicly. We’ll examine several of his artistic influences, names both familiar and less-well-known. Captured between two covers for the first time ever will be the complete run of Jon Fury in Japan, created while Alex was in the Army in the mid-50s. We’ll also present other complete Toth stories—from the original artwork!—that will show newcomers or serve to remind longtime fans why Alex Toth’s legacy will long endure. And then there will be page after page of rare and previously unseen art.

We’ll release some teasers from the book in this blog over the next couple of months…just to make sure you’re paying attention!

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