Sir MixaLot

Many of us remember when the idea of alternate universes was strictly the province of science fiction and comics enthusiasts. SF writers like Robert Silverberg, using their personal interest in history, have dabbled with the concept in short stories and novels for decades (most recently inRoma Eterna). “Mirror, Mirror,” one of Star Trek‘s most popular episodes, dropped Captain Kirk and three of his officers into an “evil twin” reality. And DC Comics has maintained a decades-long love affair with alternates, beginning with the Gardiner Fox/Carmine Infantino “Flash of Two Worlds” story from 1961’s Flash # 123.

Today we live in a science fictional world, and the phrase “alternate universe” is part of the common cultural coin, to the point where even crusty Republicans like Newt Gingrich are making money off the idea.

Recently I found myself pondering possible alternate universe comic strips. If there truly are an infinite number of Earths in the multiverse, these four comics must exist out there somewhere:

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Little Orphan Terry: Taken in as a seven-year-old by Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks, Terry Lee grows up finding adventure in the four corners of the globe. Terry proves he’ll not be separated from his adoptive guardian when he stows away the first time “Daddy” sails to deal with business interests in the Far East: even today, the “Wun Wey Battles Captain Blaze” storyline remains a classic. Many are especially fond of later stories, after Terry has grown into young manhood and helps “Daddy” get girls.

Scorch Kirby: Alex Raymond’s ex-aviator private eye has a straight nose and never wears glasses or plays the piano; Honey Dorian finds him crude but irresistible, especially after he feeds Pagan Lee to the law for her involvement with The Mangler. Scorch’s butlers never seem to last long. Short-timers like Tex and Gus have their supporters, though the majority of fans divide equally between the droll reserve of Desmond and the thick German accent of Himmelstoss.

Bringing Up Family: The George McManus/Zeke Zekley “diagrammatic” Sundays remain must-see material, as Maggie and her brood criss-cross the city in search of Jiggs and his carousing buddies.

Li’l Annie: The red-headed waif is the smartest (and best spoken) person in Dogpatch; her bemused comments about the zany antics going on around her built a daily readership that numbered in the tens of millions. She was beloved for her annual consultations with Old Man Mose in order to help deserving bachelorettes land a “dream-boat” on Sadie Hawkins Day. After Annie and the Dogpatch kids brought Gat Garson to justice, a pop culture catch phrase was born in 1939 with Garson’s last words on his way to the electric chair: ” … And I’d have gotten away with it, too – if it hadn’t been for those KIDS!”

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Got an alternate universe comic strip you’d like to see in this space? Send your ideas toinfo@loacomics.com ; we’ll run a follow-up in a future installment!

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (or Brunettes)

Forget the decades-old question, “Ginger or Mary Ann?” – our reprinting of Alex Raymond’s Rip Kirby has spurred a new matter submitted for consideration. To put it simply:

“Pagan or Honey?”

This deeply philosophical discussion was energized by a reader named Jim Davis, who resides in Maryland Heights, Missouri. He posted was a review of Rip Volume 2 at Amazon.com in which he said, “Pagan Lee has it all over girl next door Honey Dorian, who continues to be a weak point of the strip, in my opinion.”  Jim went on to say he sees Honey as primarily filling the role of deus ex machina, on hand simply to help launch new cases for Rip Kirby to solve.

Jim’s review was thoughtful, balanced, honest, and direct, all qualities I admire. Yet when it comes to the “Honey or Pagan?” question, he and I are on opposite sides of the fence.

Yes, I’ll admit it: I’m a Honey Dorian fan. That said, I’ll confess I wish Raymond and Rip‘s co-writer, Ward Greene, had continued to characterize Honey as she was depicted in the first two storylines (which we reprinted in Volume One under the titles “The Chip Faraday Murder” and “The Hicks Formula”). In those stories Honey is especially spritely and sassy, bringing a unique sparkly to Rip’s somewhat straight-arrow lifestyle. But even as the strip matures and Honey becomes more serious and far less fun-loving, I find myself siding with her over Pagan. Maybe that’s because I’m really big on loyalty and no matter the occasional spats and separations, there’s never really a doubt that Honey is devoted to Rip.

Pagan, by contrast, has already changed allegiances once, throwing over The Mangler for a chance at life on the straight and narrow. Though redemption after sin is nothing to be sneezed at, the vibe I get from Pagan says, “It’s only a matter of time before I cross the line once again and end up either in jail or on the run . . . ”

How fortunate that Raymond and Greene gave us both characters, since they so nicely counter-point one another and they present Rip with the possibility of a conflict of the heart. Conflict is hell on our heroes, but fun for us readers!

“Pagan or Honey?” It’s a matter of preference, of course, with no right or wrong answer. So I send a friendly wave to Jim Davis and all the other Pagan Lee fans out there — I’ll be easy to spot when you return the wave, because I’m in the forefront of the Honey Dorian camp.

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Noel Sickles 1935!

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It’s not often that we get to see previously unknown art from seventy-five years ago by one of the greatest cartoonists of all time. The above specialty drawing by Noel Sickles came to us from Everett Slaughter, via our pal Leif Peng. It is only the second color Scorchy Smith piece by Sickles that I’ve ever seen (the other we reproduced in Scorchy Smith and The Art of Noel Sickles). Everett writes, “My late wife, Virginia, was a neighbor to Noel Sickles in Chillicothe, Ohio.  Attached is a cartoon Noel did for her in July, 1935 when she was 10 years of age.”

Sickles had an obvious fondness for his young neighbor. The cartoonist was living in New York in 1935, sharing studio space with Milton Caniff, but made regular trips back to Chillicothe to visit with his family. The watercolor is of Scorchy and his pal, the German pilot Himmelstoss, and references a Western storyline from the strip.

Thanks so much to Everett for sharing this treasure with us.

The Eisner and Harvey Award-nominated Scorchy Smith and the Art of Noel Sickles is available at your favorite comics shop, online bookseller, or IDW’s webstore.

And in case you aren’t familiar with Leif Peng’s fantastic blog about 20th Century illustrators, take a look. It’s on my “must-read” list every week.

“No publisher is more dedicated…

…to archival collections than IDW,” writes Peter Rowe in the San Diego Tribune. “The Library runs the gamut from familiar titles to obscure works that haven’t been seen in decades: “Polly and Her Pals” debuted in 1912; detective “Rip Kirby” was on the case in the 1940s and ’50s; and fanciful “King Aroo” is another ’50s revival.”

 

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Here’s yours truly in the IDW booth at the San Diego Comicon. Check out the complete link. It’s great to see such positive mainstream coverage for the Library of American Comics and classic newspaper strips in general.

The Library and IDW were triple winners at the Eisners this year. In addition to Bloom Countytaking home the Archival Newspaper Strip award, The Rocketeer won as Best Archival Project—Comic Books, and Darwyn Cooke’s amazing adapation of Richard Stark’s Parker: The Huntedwas feted for Best Adaptation from Another Work. A big round of applause for all, especially Scott Dunbier, who edited all three winners!

Bloom County Wins 2010 Eisner Award

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The Library of American Comics again won the Eisner Award for Best Archival Project—Newspaper Strips given at the San Diego Comicon, as Bloom County took home the honors. LOAC’s Bringing Up Father was also nominated.

Above are (left to right) Creative Director Dean Mullaney, Associate Art Director (and Sunday colorist) Lorraine Turner, Berkeley Breathed himself, and series editor Scott Dunbier (proudly holding the award).

It was the first Comicon appearance for Berkeley, who also received the Inkpot Award. He was a real trooper, signing books and talking with fans for three straight days. He also created a Comicon-exclusive t-shirt. Needless to say, a fun time was had by all.

 

Dogpatch by Way of Amesbury

From the highway, Amesbury’s major distinguishing characteristic is a family sports center visible at the foot on an enormous hill. In the wintertime that snow-covered slope is home to what looks like the finest sledding in all of New England. One drives past on a sunny January day and sees a steady stream of brightly-colored plastic saucer-sleds blasting down multiple paths at top speed; one can practically hear the laughter and shrieks and squeals of delight, even from the highway, even through the closed car windows. On this weekend, however, snow was a distant memory. This was the first weekend of summer, pleasantly warm and sunny, and personal business put me on the highway, driving north for the pleasure of seeing my brother and his family before the sadness of a Sunday that required the saying of a final goodbye.

And on this sunny summery Saturday, I was about to do something I had never done before – I was taking Exit 54 off Interstate 495 in order to pay a visit to Amesbury, one of the towns Li’l Abner‘s creator, Al Capp, called home. From the highway one follows Route 150 through a few miles of nondescript residences before reaching the outskirts of the downtown area, where Route 150 gives way to Main Street.

To two of them, actually.

As I waited at the intersection for the light to change, I did a double-take. No, my eyes were not deceiving me – the two perpendicular streets were both named Main Street! The road sign marked the corner of Main and Main. I shook my head: only in New England . . .

Following Mapquest directions to a lot on Water Street, I parked and prepared to explore the downtown area. At one end of the parking lot: a pub known (for obvious reasons) as The Barn, its façade showcasing quintessential New England kitsch. The building certainly appeared old enough to have been around during Al Capp’s day, though I wondered back then if “The Barn” was simply “a barn.”

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On the town’s major thoroughfares, another New England staple – a street fair – was in full swing. Pastel-topped tents dotted both sides of the street. Some offered for sale a variety of crafts – hand-made clothes, jewelry, puzzle boxes, woodwork, and more – while others served up a variety of snacks and drinks designed to help beat the summer heat. Buskers inhabited every second or third street corner, playing a guitar or a banjo, softly singing their tunes. Wandering from display to display were new parents pushing prams – teenagers in t-shirts and jeans, clutching skateboards beneath their arms – young lovers strolling arm in arm – senior citizens, out to enjoy the splendor of an early-summer day.

Making a turn off Market Street, passing under an extended brick archway, I found the item that had sparked this trip, something originally reported in the Boston Globe and also covered here in this space as “Favored Son”.

Anchored to the wall of the archway was the four-panel painting that serves as Amesbury’s new tribute to Al Capp. Created by local artist Jon Mooers, the work was inspired by the autobiographical feature from the June 24, 1946 issue of Life Magazine. You can see the Lifepiece on pages 21 – 24 of our Li’l Abner Volume 1; you can see the Mooers version right here:

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I stepped in to examine the work up close, mentally comparing and contrasting it to Capp’s Lifefeature. I heard other voices behind me, but paid no attention to them – until I turned around and saw a couple, perhaps mid-to-late fifties, telling their teenaged grandson about how funny Li’l Abner was, how it was once one of the most popular comics in the world.

“And best of all, it’s back again,” I said, stepping in and offering the man one of my business cards. He could see The Library of American Comics logo on my card as I explained how we are reprinting Abner in a series of hardcovered books, with the first one now available and the second coming later on this year. Not a hard sell … rather, a random encounter that might give the family something extra to talk about and perhaps help increase everyone’s level of interest. That’s the hope, anyway …

Back on Main Street I continued my walkabout, snapping pictures, trying to capture more of the Amesbury ambiance. Al Capp is not the town’s only literary luminary; Li’l Abner is not its only claim to fame. Amesbury was also home to 19th Century poet and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier, who returned to the town after 1845, when ill health ended his involvement in the anti-slavery movement.

The Boston Globe article on Capp included a rather snooty-sounding quote from a member of the J.G. Whittier Home Association that makes it sound as if the Greenleafers are not entirely comfortable with the town’s attempt to attract Cappites. (The exact line was, “My son or anybody younger wouldn’t really know about him [Capp]. A lot of people don’t make the connection at all” – why do I hear that being said with a Lovey Howell-style intonation?)

One side of a prominent multi-storey building is given over to a mural honoring Whittier. The artwork is clearly visible as one drives or strolls down Main Street, and as I looked at it, I found myself hoping there is room in Amesbury to honor two contributors to the arts.

Amesbury’s chief industry was not poetry or comic strips, of course – not long after Whittier settled in town, a thriving carriage-manufacturing business developed and is remembered in yet another mural on yet another Main Street building.

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Capp’s wife’s maiden name was Catherine Cameron; her father, Colin Cameron, came from old money earned in the carriage trade. In the early 20th Century, the carriage business morphed into the construction of automobile bodies before the Great Depression wiped out this particular industry.

My trip up Main Street brought me to the town’s public library, which featured well-maintained grounds and an inviting atmosphere. New Englanders love their statues and in Amesbury, a statue of Josiah Bartlett sits on the edge of the library’s grounds. Bartlett was born in the town and went on to sign the Declaration of Independence, though he lived much of his life (and had most of his successes) as a resident of New Hampshire.

As I retraced my steps, making my way back to my car, I spotted the storefront of the town’s bookstore, Bertram & Oliver Booksellers. I am decidedly cool to everything “chain” – chain department stores, chain restaurants, chain home improvement stores, chain bookstores – so I was delighted to step inside and be greeted by the soothing sight of shelf upon shelf of books, a simple employee station and single cash register, and preparations being made for a kids’ reading session slated for later that day.

 

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I spoke with B&O’s owner, the delightful Joanne Wimberly, who gave me some of her valuable time even though she was in the midst of preparing for the special children’s event. I explained why I was in town and about LOAC’s Li’l Abner reprints and she was interested to hear we weren’t reprinting the strips as comic books, but rather as hardcovers. “Ah! A graphic novel!” Joanne said. “See, I’m learning the lingo!” At her request, I promised to send her the book specs and ordering details about Abner.

By the time I left Bertram & Oliver’s it was approaching noontime, my camera’s memory was nearly full, and I had hours of driving still ahead of me. It was time to say goodbye to Amesbury – but my detour off the highway lightened the somber circumstances awaiting me on Sunday, as several friends and I gathered to pay our due respects. It rather lightened things for my oldest, closest friends as well – as the day began to wane, I summarized my visit to Amesbury, my encounter with the family near the Capp mural, my exchange with Joanne Wimberly, my surprise at seeing the intersection of Main and Main. One of my friends shook his head. “You have about the greatest job on earth,” he said.

And you know – I’d be hard-pressed to disagree!

 

More Jabs Than Puns

The end of Annie as a regular newspaper feature received significant media coverage, but here in the Library of American Comics universe we are smack in the midst of Great Moments in AnnieHistory. You’ll see one of the greatest later on this year, as the incredible Punjab marks his debut in the sixth volume of our series.

Check out the extremely rare Punjab Mystic Code Translater above, courtesy our friend Richard Olson. He’d been searching for this elusive premium for nearly forty years and recently added it to his phenomenal LOA collection. Richard has been kindly sharing his goodies for the introductions to our Complete Little Orphan Annie.

The year 1935 opened with Annie, Sandy, and “Daddy” on the bum. Prospects looked bleak, but the first sign fortunes would change occurs in the January 26th daily, when “Daddy” shaves off the scruffy beard he had been cultivating for almost three weeks. “Maybe I was a little bashful about letting people recognize me-the great Warbucks sunk to the level of a tramp,” Warbucks muses. “But what do I care? Let ’em look-I’ve never cringed yet and I’ll not start now.” When “Daddy” gets that steely note of resolve in his voice, it’s only a matter of time before he’s back on top again…

But what’s the one lesson Gray consistently teaches? Even a man as formidable as Warbucks can’t do it alone. This time the path back to respectability leads to “Daddy’s” globe-trotting old friend, Henry Morgan, and his giant bodyguard from India, the exotic Punjab.

We get our first look at Punjab in the February 3, 1935 Sunday; “Daddy” begins introducing him to Annie on Monday, February 11th. In the weeks that follow, Gray’s stoic new character tosses around no-goods like Doc Savage, he appears and disappears like The Shadow, he espouses a Far Eastern philosophy that’s a mix of Rudyard Kipling and Sax Rohmer. As he performs feats of prestidigitation and serves up inscrutable visions of the future, Punjab takesLittle Orphan Annie—always the most hard-headed and pragmatic of series – into the misty realms of mysticism. It is Punjab who shows America’s spunkiest kid there are unseen forces at work in the world, that there is knowledge and then there is Knowledge.

By the end of March, when Annie finds an old tramp near death, lying deep in the woods, it is Punjab who uses his many abilities (including his skill with the “jungle wireless”) to save the tramp’s life. That tramp, as Annieologists know, puts “Daddy” back on the path to respectability as Harold Gray begins to unfold perhaps his most trenchant sociopolitical commentary.

     Little Orphan Annie Volume 6 offers more than a dance around the edges of the supernatural—old friends Wun Wey and (huzzah!) Pee Wee the Elephant make their returns, as well. But the spotlight moment comes in the early months of 1935, when Punjab steps onto the stage and into Annie’s life.

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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.

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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.

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