Here’s LOAC Art Director Lorraine Turner with Francesco Meo of the Italian comics publisher Cosmo Editoriale. We had lunch with Francesco today in Bologna, renewing the friendship we established at Angoulême last year. Newspaper strips fans will be glad to know that Francesco is publishing Italian editions of Terry and the Pirates, Steve Canyon, Dick Tracy, Russ Manning’s Tarzan, Flash Gordon, Rip Kirby, as well as other “A” list strips!
Several years ago we took some time in this space to show you what my LOAC bookshelf looked like. I shelve my books in alphabetical order by author, or by publisher where that makes more sense — for instance, while my William Saroyans are under “S”, my Fantastic Fours are under “M”, with the rest of my Marvel Comics collections. My Library of American Comics titles are therefore under “L,” and then shelved alphabetically in a logical way (well, logical to me, anyway), as you can see:
Among that circle of long-time friends I’ve referenced in this space on several occasions is Tom Field, perhaps best known in comics circles as the biographer of “Gentleman” Gene Colan (1926-2011). Tom and I both cut our comics teeth on late Silver Age Marvel Super-Heroes — thanks to Stan Lee’s inspired marketing and promotions, we grew up thinking of the talents behind those books by their first names. To us they were Jack and John (Buscema and Romita), Neal and Barry and, yes, Gene. I was introduced to Colan’s work with Daredevil # 33 (a one-off purchase during a visit to a small store that carried comics during a summertime family vacation), but returned to it as a regular reader with DD # 42, a perfect jumping-on point, since contrived fictional “brother” Mike Murdock had been “killed off,” an ambitious four-part story featuring new villain The Jester was just beginning, and it was easy for me to dive into the world of the Sightless Swashbuckler. Tom’s first issue was somewhat later than mine, but his reactions to Gene’s rendering of Daredevil’s hyper-kinetic acrobatic style of crime-fighting mirrored my own.
Our appreciation for Gene’s work grew as we did — his two stints on Doctor Strange still strike me as high watermarks for that series. His ability to deliver absurdist humor was on display when he paired with Steve Gerber for a memorable run on Howard the Duck, and the Wolfman/Colon/Palmer Tomb of Dracula delivered a powerfully moody, atmospheric dash of macabre adventure throughout the 1970s. We followed Gene to DC in the 1980s, where he was a natural to depict the saga of Batman, while also teaming with Don McGregor on two hard-boiled detective miniseries featuring Nathaniel Dusk (Colan and McGregor re-teamed at Eclipse Comics on a still-much-beloved series of Ragamuffins tales).
Tom and I met Gene Colan during an appearance he made at the huge Worcester, Massachusetts comics shop, That’s Entertainment. Tom and Gene struck up a years-long friendship as a result of that meeting, and in 2005 Tom published a fine retrospective of Gene’s career in TwoMorrow Publishing’s Secrets in the Shadows: The Art and Life of Gene Colan. Filled with artwork (the hardcover edition includes a portfolio section in full color) and featuring interviews with and quotes from several of Gene’s major collaborators (Stan Lee, Tom Palmer, Gerber, Wolfman, Roy Thomas, Steve Englehart), the book is a labor of love I have returned to many times over the past dozen years.
And what’s the point of this trip down memory lane, you ask? Why, just yesterday (August 26, 2017, for you calendar buffs) Tom and I got together for the first time in several months. We spent an afternoon catching up and talking about the important things in life — you know, families, friends, comics, and Boston professional sports — and as we prepared to part ways, Tom said, “I have something for you.” And he gave me this:
“This” is a page from Colan’s visual record of his World War II-era experiences in the U.S. Army Air Forces. Gene captured impressions of military life in a journal and sent illustrations along with his letters home to family while he was stationed in the Philippines in 1945. As Tom describes it (with a bit of help from Gene himself) on pages 25-26 of Secrets in the Shadows:
“A little bit Bill Mauldin, a touch of Milton Caniff, Colan’s service diary eased his transition into life overseas, and it gave him a bit of notoriety on base in Manila. By day, Colan was a truck driver in the motor pool; by night, he was an in-demand sketch artist.
“‘I would draw guys going overseas, draw the natives around our base,’ Colan says. ‘I remember drawing a Philippine girl by candlelight — I wanted to do it that way. And I also drew a picture of our tent boy. The major loved that drawing so much he said, “I’ll give you my jeep for the day if you’ll give me that picture!“‘”
This particular page, as you can see, was capturing activity just before Gene’s unit was called to duty in the Pacific — also before Gene came down with a powerful case of pneumonia that put him in a field hospital, delaying his own ship-out to Manila. You can also tell it’s seen hard use over the seventy-two years since it was created, but it’s nevertheless a precious artifact, one I’m proud to currently steward and pleased to share with you here.
And if you think there’s no connection between Gene Colan and LOAC, well, here’s Tom again, from page 15 of Secrets:
“There are three prominent comic strips Colan recalls from the 1930s:
” Al Capp’s Li’l Abner: The Dogpatch hillbillies were a source of amusement and inspiration for young Colan. ‘I had a hard time at school with some of the bullies, so Li’l Abner and Mammy Yokum kind of helped me through it. She was very tough!’
“Milton Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates: The greatest adventure strip of its day was at its artistic height during Colan’s teens, and he was totally entranced by the growth of Terry Lee, Pat Ryan, and crew. ‘I can even remember the smell of the newsprint. I’d put the paper right up to my face …’ and get lost in Caniff’s stylish rendering of action, adventure, and adult romance.
“Coulton Waugh’s Dickie Dare: A boy, his dog, and their adventures ’round the world. Those are the elements that appealed most to Colan, who recalls this strip as his favorite among favorites. ‘Every day I couldn’t wait to see what would happen to that poor kid. The strip appeared in the New York Sun, and my father would always come out of the subway with a copy, on his way home from work. I would wait for him topside and I’d grab the paper just to see the next installment.'”
It’s no surprise a talent as singular as Gene Colan would have such good taste in comic strips, is it?
Gene has been gone more than five years now, but his work continues to be reprinted (Marvel has announced new softcovered Tomb of Dracula reprints, for example) — and Secrets in the Shadows is still in print and definitely comes recommended. At the TwoMorrows website you can use their search feature to find the book’s listing, view a preview on-screen (or download a PDF preview for later viewing), and place an order. After you’ve enjoyed Secrets, you’ll join Tom and me (if you haven’t already) as a lifelong fan of the one and only Gentleman Gene Colan.
Friday night is game night around the ol’ Library offices. All we have to do is decide which game to play. Three great choices — two vintage and one new. OPTION ONE is the 1937 Terry and the Pirates game:
OPTION TWO is a 1933 Little Orphan Annie premium from Ovaltine.
OPTION THREE is a modern game, complete with real strategy and plot threads taken from Hugo Pratt’s Corto Maltese graphic novels:
Which one will we pick? Tune in on Monday!
As a partial payback to Italy for providing the world with arguably the best of all cuisines, we can report that Italian readers can now enjoy the best of the best in American comics: Milton Caniff is being translated by our friends at Editoriale Cosmo in Reggio Emilia. Francesco Meo and company have begun reprinting both Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon (as well as Russ Manning’s Tarzan). I met with Francesco at the Angoulême festival last week, where he was also considering reprinting the old Eclipse Airboy comics by Tim Truman, Chuck Dixon, and friends.
In the text features for our LOAC titles we often quote from letters received by the cartoonist in question. Sometimes this is professional correspondence related to the business of syndicating or merchandising the strip and its characters, while other times we cite those individual readers who felt the burning urge to pen either high praise or high dudgeon and mail it to the artist.
But some letters are so far “off the beam” they would have no place inside our books. Let me share the highlights — and I use that term loosely — from one of my very favorites with you …
Postmarked from scenic Brooklyn, New York in September of 1955, the item in question arrived in an envelope bearing this address (pardon the extreme blurriness):
The enclosed letter was typed all in capitals (before that approach was deemed to represent “shouting”). As you can tell from the envelope excerpt above, the copy of the letter I have is too blurred for good reproduction, but I carefully transcribed the contents of the original when I found it during one of our research trips to The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum at The Ohio State University, so I’m able to replicate the all-caps format and include the various typos and misspellings, as well. Believe me, I couldn’t make this stuff up!
The author begins:
RUSSIAS CLAIMS ON PLANETARY DISCOVERY BY COSMIC SPACE SHIPS IN AN ARTICLE OF AUG. ’55 BY REUTERS NEWS DISPATCH, IS A LITTLE PREVIOUS. IN AUG. OF ’53, PATIENT Z-125 IN WASHINGTON, D.C. REHEARSED THE STATE DEPARTMENT IN RIGHTS OF THE WORD OF GOD ON FAR PLANETS.
THE EVOLUTION AND PROPAGATION OF THE THREE PLANETS NEAREST THE SUN-STAR ARE IN THE ICE, STONE AND BIBLE MAKING STAGES. WIT H EARTH THE FARTHEST ADVANCED OF ORBIT EVOLUTION IN THE SUN-STAR UNIVERSE, THE BROTHER AND SISTER PLANETS HAVE BEEN IN COMMUNION WITH THE EARTH EVOLUTION.
BEING HINDERED IN STATIONING, AND ATMOSPHERIC PLANETARY ACCEPTANCE, W WOULD BE A HURDLE RUSSIA MAY FIND DIFFICULT TO- OVER COME.
The author (who shall go nameless) then shifts to a discussion of the goddesses found in “GREEK FAIRY TALES” and a tale of The Resurrection cited as being revealed by “ST MATTHEW TO THE MULTITUDE IN EPISTLE C22.” In closing, the letter’s writer offers this:
POEM OF PROSE
A WEDLOCK BEING WAC, MARRIED AND M.D.,
IN THE 1st CHURCH BEILEVEING 6 DAYS FOR A MONTH.
NOW THERE’S 28 DAYS IN ONE MONTH;
BEING, TOO, WELOCKED IN 2nd CHURCH BELIEVING 22 DAYS FOR A MONTH.
THE LADY OF MONTHS THAT PASS.
THAT BEING NEAR THE PHYSICIAN.
THE LADY KNOWS HER Ps AND Qs.
THAT FAR MATHEMATICIAN KNOWS Y PLUS X = ZERO.
Finally, by way of apology, the correspondent concluded: “P.S. SORRY I’M NOT A GOOD ODE-IST, PLEASE FOR-GIVE MY SHORT COMINGS.”
Even a wit as keen as Al Capp seemed flummoxed by what he had just read. Still, because he was a swiftie, he saw in the letter an opportunity to throw a couple gentle jabs at his good friend, Caniff. He forwarded the letter to Milton along with a note dated September 22, 1955. In it, Al wrote:
“Judging from the contents of this letter … this is one of your readers. It was sent to me because everyone thinks I do all the comic strips.”
That humorous note provided the perfect — errr-r-r — Capper to the original letter writer’s impenetrable attempt at communication. But the missive serves as a reminder that, just as in today’s 21st Century world of high-profile stars and instantaneous contact, where stories of “celebrity stalkers” or bedeviling on-line “trolls” regularly make the news, the classic penmen of the past received plenty of letters from those who fit the description of either cranks or crackpots. Technology changes, but the range of human response does not.
And if this little exchange provided you with a smile, remind me someday to reprint the letter Ernie Bushmiller wrote about one particular piece of fan mail …!
Hollywood has been on my mind a lot the past few weeks.
It started while assembling the week’s worth of puzzles that ran in this space a short time ago; each installment contained one Hollywood connection, and it was great fun sifting through images of wonderful old stars such as Eve Arden and Spencer Tracy.
Over the past couple days days there has been some discussion amongst my oldest friends regarding the new Doctor Strange motion picture from Marvel Studios. When you grew up reading Marvel Comics as we did, and when you dealt with the sneering of the adult population (I remember one bookstore clerk racking up the sale for a fresh stack of comics I was buying and snidely asking, “Are you going to read them all tonight?”), regardless what you think of the finished movie product it’s more than slightly amazing that John & Jane Q. Public now know who Stephen Strange is (and Tony Stark, and Steve Rogers, and Peter Parker, and …). Even more amazing to realize how many members of that public-at-large are shelling out hard-earned coin to see their big-screen adventures.
In the course of that discussion, it hit me that that while audiences watching theatrical versions of Marvel Comics characters is a relatively new phenomenon, the practice of audiences filling movie palaces to see cartoon characters move and talk and generally come to life is anything but new — and yes, it was the comic strips that got there first. That led me to put together this two-part look back at Those Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, focusing this time on the “crown jewels” of the Chicago Tribune New York News Syndicate.
Milton Caniff’s 1934-1946 run on Terry and the Pirates remains as feisty and entertaining today as it was when it was appearing in daily newspapers across the country. The Columbia Pictures serial version of Terry is less successful than its source material, but back in 1940 comics were considered cheap, throwaway entertainment and chapterplays were simply warm-ups for the featured film, so there were less-discerning filters being applied in those days. Certainly many of the kids attending the Saturday matinee were probably content to see Terry, Pat, Normandie, Connie, and Big Stoop walking, talking, and come to life before their eyes.
As discussed in Volume 5 of our Little Orphan Annie series, 1932 brought RKO’s version of America’s Spunkiest Kid into the cinemas. It fared little better with critics than would Terry, despite featuring one of the premier child stars of the day, Mitzi Green.
Arguably the best and certainly the the longest-lived of the celluloid versions of the CTNYN “Big Three” is Dick Tracy. America’s Top Manhunter first hit the movie screen in 1937 as a fifteen-chapter Republic Pictures serial, the first in a series of five from that studio.
RKO followed Republic in 1945 with a series of four Dick Tracy full-length films. Morgan Conway played Tracy in the first two before Ralph Byrd resumed the part for Dick Tracy’s Dilemma and Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome. In this still with June Clayworth from the latter production (1947), it’s clear Byrd still looks great as Tess Trueheart’s one-and-only.
CTNYN wasn’t the only major comic strip syndicator to have its characters entertain movie-goers. We’ll be back soon with a look at a trio of strips from the King Features stable that lived parallel lives in the flicker-pictures.
In my house, when I was a boy growing up, we always had a “junk drawer,” that catchall where everything went that didn’t quite fit anywhere else. When my siblings or I would complain that we couldn’t find a particular item, the inevitable question would come back, “Did you look in the junk drawer?”
Today I still have the equivalent of a junk drawer for a portion of my LOAC filing. I don’t think of it as a junk drawer, of course — there are too many terrific items stored inside it that could never qualify as “junk!” But certain outsized articles, or thick bundles of clipped strips, or, yes, things that otherwise don’t quite fit anywhere else all end up in this one particular file cabinet drawer.
I recently had cause to open that drawer, searching for one specific article, and as typically happens I found myself looking through a batch of other artifacts before I found what I was seeking. One of those stray pieces that caught my attention was the tribute booklet King Features Syndicate assembled in honor of George McManus and Bringing Up Father on the advent of the strip’s twentieth anniversary. Thumbing through that jumbo-sized pamphlet, I took particular note of the spread that featured a look at how Jiggs’s physical appearance had changed throughout the history of the series:
Giving equal attention to both main characters, King provided a similar look at how Maggie morphed from stocky dowager to trim fashionista. Maggie’s display went Jiggs’s one better, since it included the years from which the images were taken:
It occurred to me that it might be fun to see how the looks of other major comics characters had evolved over time. I started by going back to 1926 with Little Orphan Annie, snagging an image from mid-June of that year, culled from one of my favorite Harold Gray stories, guest-starring Pee Wee the Elephant. Almost twenty years later, on April 15, 1946, I selected a panel showing how Annie had grown and matured. Fifteen years after that, in July of 1961, it’s arguable whether or not America’s Spunkiest Kid looks younger than she did in 1946, but her hair has definitely got wilder and more unruly!
Dick Tracy looks lean and lanky in this first panel, from June 27, 1932. In 1947, fifteen years later, he’s favoring a snap-brim fedora and his profile has become even more chiseled. Moving down the timeline another nineteen years, to 1966, Tracy arguable looks more weathered, with deeper lines around his eyes. His chapeau is more compact and close-fitting — but his necktie has remained incredibly resilient! (Note that Moon Maid is present in the background of the 1966 panel — you’ll be meeting her soon in our ongoing Dick Tracy series.)
Having taken snapshots in time of both Annie and Tracy, it was only natural to look at Terry Lee, the third star in the Chicago Tribune New York News Syndicate’s three “crown jewels.” As you can see below, in 1935 the star of Terry and the Pirates was a boyish adventurer very much in the Tom Swift/Tintin tradition. A decade later, with America and her Allies poised to emerge victorious from the conflicts of the Second World War, the Terry we see listening with surprise as he gets an earful from Johnny Jingo is a mature young man who has fulfilled creator Milton Caniff’s goal of growing up to displace Pat Ryan as the adult focus of the strip that bears his name. Fifteen years further down the timeline, in this panel from May 1, 1961, George Wunder’s Terry has aged gracefully — he’s filled out, with broader shoulders and a more rounded face. No matter his age, though, Terry Lee’s fate regularly seems to be entwined with that of exotic, mysterious women!
Since King Features characters set me on this path, it seemed proper that I pick another KFS star to conclude my look at character evolution. I think you’ll enjoy examining the radical changes that occur in the look of Secret Agent X-9, Phil Corrigan, as we move from his natty Hammettesque 1935 rendering (the product of Alex Raymond’s talented pen) to his more rumpled, almost slope-shouldered, January 31, 1957 Mel Graff appearance to his suave 1971 look, courtesy of Al Williamson.
Given the disposable nature of daily newspapers and the inevitable audience turnover, one is left to wonder how many readers noted these visual changes over time. Certainly the stylistic differences of the artists who drew X-9/Corrigan would be hard to miss, but was it a relatively seamless transition for most readers from Caniff to George Wunder on Terry? And for strips produced by the same hand for decades — Little Orphan Annie, Bringing Up Father, Dick Tracy — how often did the changes in physical appearance get noticed and, when noticed, how often did they get accepted with a simple mental shrug? None of us were there, none of us can really know — but it’s certainly fun to ponder!
Caniffites may recall the tail-end of my introductory essay for Steve Canyon Volume 4, in which I discussed and excerpted a chain of 1953 letters between Milton Caniff and Hugh M. Hefner that I unearthed during one of our research trips to The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum at The Ohio State University. The letters revolved around Hefner’s desire to produce a “Miss Lace” featurette in an early issue of (as Hefner put it) “a new men’s magazine beginning publication this fall.” That magazine was to be called — Stag Party.
There’s many a slip ‘twixt the initial plans for a magazine and its eventual launch, and in Hefner’s case Stag Party was renamed Playboy before it hit the stands. The nudes of the already-iconic Marilyn Monroe contained in that historic first issue helped make “Hef’s” venture a rousing success from the outset — but featuring a high-profile talent like Milton Caniff and a nostalgic — and buxom! — character like Miss Lace in the second issue didn’t exactly hurt the circulation numbers.
My friend and cultural scholar/historian Doug Thornsjo recently acquired a batch of very early Playboys and — *toinnn-n-n-ng!* — the discovery that his new arrivals included the second (January, 1954) issue meant we’d be able to share a sizable portion of the “Miss Lace” feature with you in this space. (We’ll block what the Monty Python crew once called “the naughty bits” in a couple places, just to keep things all-ages-appropriate.)
Here’s the first page of the three-page article:
Page two features four “Lace” strips that appeared in camp newspapers worldwide during the War years. Here are two of my favorites:
The last page contains four special “Lace”s — Hefner’s lead-in text will explain what made them special:
And here’s one more of the rejected “Male Call”s that seems especially appropriate for Playboy:
As a little bonus — again, with just a bit of blockage used — here’s an image from later in the second issue of the magazine, featuring the always-exemplary penwork of James Montgomery Flagg:
Hugh Hefner was something of an artist himself; he was also a great admirer of cartoonists and illustrators, as his use of Caniff and Flagg attests. One of Playboy‘s legitimate contributions to the 20th Century arts scene was its liberal use of cartoons and the generous pay scale it offered to those artists who appeared in its pages during its heyday (fiction writers also benefited from the greater-than-market-average rates Playboy paid). Whatever one may think about Hefner and the culture that grew up around his magazine and him, The Digital Age has yet to generate (to the best of my knowledge) a financial angel for artists and writers who is the equal of “Hef.” (I’d be glad to hear from anyone who can prove me wrong, though!)
And of course, one of the fun things about my job is the ability to revisit past topics when opportunities arise to amplify and expand upon them with new knowledge or imagery. Thanks Doug (as if I didn’t owe you enough already!) for making that possible in this case. Those interested will find Doug and his sharply insightful film reviews, sociopolitical commentary, and line of unique Tarot-based products on the Web at The Duck Soup Homepage.
09/11/16 UPDATE: From the letters pager in Playboy‘s fourth issue, here is the published reader reaction to the “Miss Lace” featurette, including kind words from Pappy himself!