The Schulz blog has moved!

PLEASE NOTE:

The Schulz blog has moved to a new location and got a new look.
Please update your bookmarks accordingly.

he new url is: http://cartoonstudies.org/schulz/blog/

Cartoonist librarians, Jen Vaughn and Caitlin McGurk.

Sorry for the inconvenience! Please drop by to see the new and improved site.

Thanks!
-Schulz Library crew

 

 

 

S.R. Bissette on Pre-Code Horror Comics Collections: Part 1

Three brand-new books on a long-despised and now fashionable genre—the oxymoronic genre of “horror comics”—have hit bookshops and library shelves over the past month, and CCS’s Schulz Library takes a look at all three this week. All three arrive on the heels of editor/packager/archivist Craig Yoe‘s handsome resurrection of Dick Briefer’s Frankenstein,

  • another slice of Pre-Code horror (and humor) comicbook history we reviewed here last month (in time for Halloween!).
  • It’s been a bountiful harvest for horror comics hounds this fall! Here’s a review of the first—and in many ways, the best—of the crop…

    _________

    * Greg Sadowski‘s excellent Four Color Fears: Forgotten Horror Comics of the 1950s (Fantagraphics Books) was the first of a quartet of books on horror comics to surface this fall, and for my money, it’s arguably the most invaluable of the bunch. Graced with an introduction and extensive additional material by vet horror comics scholar, archivist, collector, and expert John Benson, Four Color Fears offers over 300 pages of full-color complete stories lovingly selected from the non-EC Comics Pre-Code horror comics of the early 1950s.

    For reasons clear to anyone with any access to the real Pre-Code horror comics, EC Comics has long dominated any and all books about the genre and the 1951-1954 boom years in particular. But there was plenty of other outstanding, outrageous, exciting, and just plain bizarre material published in that fleeting but jam-packed three-year period, and it’s high time we saw some of that work disintered and shared. While collectors have rescued and savored much of this work, it’s been nigh on impossible for non-collectors (including scholars and serious researchers) to access the non-EC Pre-Code horrors.

    There are forty—count ‘em, 40!—vintage horror comics stories showcased in this glorious collection. They are all reproduced from their original four-color printings, preserving the instrinsic flavor (and trash aesthetic) of the era and form, along with a handsome cover gallery insert (printed on slick paper) and abundant, informative, heavily illustrated notes on all the stories and what is known of their creators. This section of annotations also offers more delicious cover art, along with much previously unavailable information on the who, what, when, and how of the comics and creators themselves.

    There are some real revelations here, and I can tell you that this hardcore horror comics scholar/collector/creator is eternally grateful for all that Sadowski and Benson have added herein to a richer knowledge of these unique comics and this grossly misrepresented and misunderstood period in comics history.

    With an eye toward entertaining fully as well as curating, Sadowski’s greatest accomplishment here is making Four Color Fear such a fun and engaging read, cover-to-cover. Stories, and their order, have been chosen and orchestrated for optimum effect for casual reading, in the order presented. Let me tell you from hard experience (my years editing new horror comics stories in Taboo, 1988-93), that this is far easier said than done; in a genre grounded in provoking negative emotions for its primary effects (i.e., fear, dread, disgust, horror), it’s a real tightwire act to determine which stories belong where, and what effects are created by where an editor places a particular story, idea, or image. A misstep can either make or break a story, ending, or key moment, and careful orchestration of humor, horror, and variety is essential to making this sort of thing sing.

    In this, Sadowsky brings far more care to his anthology than any of the original editors of these comics seemed to; the cumulative effect, at times, is intoxicating, and the ways in which both the individual art styles and the narrative content are woven into a satisfying tapestry are often witty, sly and insidious. There’s a lot of smart work, here, and as a result it’s a super read for everyone, whether you’ve never before sampled this era’s strange fruit or are (like me) a long-time fan and collector.

    It’s gratifying to find a few of my all-time favorite stories and artists here (like Basil Wolverton‘s “Swamp Monster” from Weird Mysteries #5, June 1953, pictured above, left; and Reed Crandall‘s “The Corpse That Came to Dinner” from Out of the Shadows #9, July 1953, above, right). It’s even more gratifying to find so many surprises and—in the fresh context of Four Color Fear—stories I’d long ago read and shrugged off so revitalized by what Sadowski places them between and/or alongside here.

    [A notorious Bernard Bailey cover for Weird Mysteries #5 (June 1953) that I’ve always included in my own lectures on the Pre-Code horror comics, and that is featured in both Four Color Fear and The Horror! The Horror!; a small taste of how extreme the Pre-Code horrors could be and often were.]

    ___

    Caveats: Aside from quibbling with some of Sadowski’s selections, which I won’t do here (see “addendum & full disclosure” note at the end of this post; I have plenty of my own personal favorite Pre-Code horrors, and if anyone’s interested, I’d be happy to talk to an agent, editor, or published about putting together such a volume), a fuller working knowledge of the horror genre in all media would have lent even more weight and insight to this collection. While it may seem like hair-splitting to criticize such an incredibly generous tome, genre studies and horror genre academia in particular has been thriving, and the ways in which Pre-Code horror comics in particular both “borrowed” (often blatantly ripped-off) from all that came before, and anticipated much of what was to follow, is an aspect of the genre’s evolution in all media that has been lazily cited for decades but rarely, almost never, really brought to light. This was a stellar opportunity to do so, but Sadowsky and Benson keep their focus on the context of comic book history alone, which is occasionally a frustration for this reader.

    The ways in which particular comics stories appearing here stole from their precursors—in gothic, pulp, and radio genre fiction, as well as popular writers of their era—is mentioned, but rarely specifically cited. In other cases, a knowledge of past and future genre landmarks would have lent some heft to the legacy under scrutiny: for instance, a sample of how Matt Fox‘s Pre-Code comics covers reworked his venerable Weird Tales pulp covers would have been welcome. Mentioning the uncanny parallel between the Iger Studio “Experiment in Terror” (from Haunted Thrills #13, January 1954) and the final episode (“Theory”) in José Mojica Marins‘s notorious horror portmanteau film O Estranho Mundo de Zé do Caixão/Strange World of Coffin Joe /The Strange World of Ze do Caixao (1968) would have added resonance to the whole (in fact, Marins’s “Theory” is almost identical to “Experiment in Terror” in many particulars, right down to the philosophical intent of the madman staging the grueling ordeal; that Marins also spawned his own Brazilian horror comics only intensifies the associative links begging to be drawn here). Instead, we’re treated to another Jerry Iger anecdote that has nothing to do with the story itself (though it’s neat to see the connection made—in a caption—between the story and its apparently intended cover art, which instead was published eight months later on another title, Fantastic Fears #9).

    Sadly, it must be noted that the cover is the book’s greatest liability. Any one of the actual Pre-Code covers in the gallery would have done a better job of properly promoting and packaging the contents. I see what the designer was trying to do (conceptually a clever fusion of images from the Reed Crandall splash for “The Corpse That Came to Dinner” and page 4 of Howard Nostrand’s art for “I, Vampire,” from Chamber of Chills #24, July 1954, reprinted on pp. 209-213), but graphically it’s a failure and easily lost on both the book store shelves and online venues. The book’s title is lost, too, and the addition of a fancy varnish-printed blood splatter design (front and back) only further complicates the design. Again, I get the intention and concept, but… sigh. As with the otherwise definitive Fantagraphics Book on the late, great underground (horror) cartoonist Greg Irons, You Call This Art?!!: A Greg Irons Retrospective by Patrick Rosenkranz (2006), what should have been an easy-sell given the incredible imagery associated with the chosen subject has been compromised by a cover that simply confuses and/or repels the eye (and not in the way horror comics intend to repel). Here’s hoping either future editions or future collections from Fantagraphics better serve the genre and their own product.

    In all other departments, this is a terrific book, and highly recommended.

    This is a marvelous companion to Sadowski’s earlier Fantagraphics collection Supermen! The First Wave of Comic Book Heroes 1936-1941 (2009), in which Sadowski similarly shed light on too-long-forgotten gems, curios, and entertainments from comics creators and publishers that have been essentially ignored and/or disposed of by the forces that shape comics history. As in Supermen!, Sadowski’s appetites and reach prove satisfyingly diverse, all-encompassing, and yet quite selective— without catering to traditional, constrictive standards of “taste.” Sadowski knows that some of the most outrageous, insane, and appalling vintage comics stories and imagery are also among the most fascinating; and nowhere is this truer than in the horror comics of the Pre-Code boom years. Four Color Fear also whets this reader’s appetite further for Sadowski’s forthcoming Setting the Standard: Alex Toth (announced for spring 2011 publication).

    While much work that was hacked out by impoverished creators working for opportunistic packagers and publishers paying chicken scratch rates has justifiably been neglected, both Sadowski and Benson make a strong case for preserving and reprinting the cream of such publishing backwash, and Four Color Fears is a welcome remedy and companion to the handsome EC Comics reprint volumes (many of which Benson contributed to or packaged himself) that have been available since Nostalgia Press‘s historic Horror Comics of the 1950s (1971, edited by Ron Barlow and Bhob Stewart) enshrined EC Comics as the peak product of the Pre-Code horror publishers. Ever since, EC’s horror comics have almost exclusively dominated any published reprint editions of the genre’s fertile Pre-Code explosion.

    Given the high quality of the EC line, that’s been completely understandable, but now that the entire EC line has been repeatedly (and beautifully) reprinted, republished, repackaged, and immortalized ad infinitum, it’s high time the other Horror Comics of the 1950s were allowed to rise from the dead.

    That classic 1971 book was a beautiful start; four decades later, Sadowski and Benson have at last graced us with a worthy followup.

    - S.R. Bissette, Mountains of Madness, VT

    __________________

    Addendum & full disclosure: Having been one of the active creative collaborators (I was the penciler) on DC Comics’s Saga of the Swamp Thing when that title was rejected by the Comics Code Authority (with SOTST #29, cover dated October 1984)—which was the wellspring for the entire Vertigo Comics line—I’ve had first-hand experience with (a) the Comics Code’s policies and (b) horror comics bucking the CCA. FYI, we did not change anything in the issue; it was sold without the CCA Seal; sales went up; after two more issues, we no longer had to submit to the restrictions of the CCA. Though I repeatedly asked for a copy of the extant CCA Code itself during that (brief) debacle, none was provided, and it seemed despite the fact that DC honcho (and my former Kubert School instructor) Dick Giordano was DC’s rep on the CCA, nobody at DC Comics actually had a copy of the then-extant CCA Code to send me.

    Finding this perverse process fascinating, and loving horror comics anyway, I spent much of the next five years researching and collecting Pre-Code horror comics. The fruits of that research and collection became my traveling slide lecture “Journeys Into Fear,” which I debuted as a one-hour talk at Necon (an annual July gathering of horror writers that I attended faithfully from the late 1980s until 1999, and which I sorely miss being part of) in the summer of 1988 or ’89. I expanded the lecture into a two-hour-plus illustrated presentation that was eventually presented in over 60 venues throughout the 1990s in the U.S. and abroad, often as fund-raising events for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. Along with presenting the lecture (at my own expense) as a CBLDF fundraiser during the mid-1990s Spirit of Independence tours, these venues included the Copenhagen Comic Art Library in Copenhagen, Denmark; The University of Connecticut, Storrs, Connecticut; Utica College, Utica, New York; Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; the 2nd and 3rd Annual World Horror Conventions; the San Diego Comics Convention; Marlboro College, Marlboro, VT; Bennington College, Bennington, VT; Henderson State University, Arkadelphia, Arkansas; FantAsia Film Festival, Montreal, Quebec, Canada; and many others. In 1999, “Journeys Into Fear” was expanded into a one-week seminar for Smith College in Northampton, MA. Though I pitched Journeys Into Fear as a book proposal numerous times over the decade, there was no interest from publishers.

    I’m glad the times have changed!

    -SRB

    Survey 1 Comic Strip Essays: Melanie Gillman on “Polly and Her Pals”

    Note: This is the sixth in a series of essays written (and, in this case, drawn) by the current Class of 2012 for Survey of the Drawn Story I, CCS’s comics history class. They are posted here in approximate chronological order of when their chosen subjects—comic strips—were either first published, or in their heyday.

    These were class assignments, and should be enjoyed in that context; these are not necessarily indicative of the work the individual artists/writers would do in paid professional venues. This is work assigned in class with a tight deadline, completed while juggling many other class assignments. That said, it is all of high caliber, or we would not be sharing it with you here. Enjoy!

    Students have the option to either write an essay, or to draw their essay in comics form. This is the first of the comics-format essays we’re presenting; enjoy! There are more to come. Survey I instructor Stephen Bissette has added the author info and “further reading” notes after this comics-format essay.

    NOTE: To enlarge these comics pages for easier reading, just click on the image itself to open larger scans in another window.

    ________________________________________________


    [The above is ©2010 Melanie Gillman, all rights reserved; it is posted with permission.]

    ________________________________________

    About the author/student:

  • Melanie Gillman‘s blog/website Contriveathon is here, and it’s full of art, writing, comics, links, and more; explore and enjoy!

  • Melanie also has shared her comics online at Sub-Scribe (here’s the link)
  • and at ColoredChalk.com (here’s that link), among others.

  • (PS: You can also visit Melanie on Facebook, if she chooses to ‘friend’ you, natch.)
  • _______

    Further reading & resources:

  • Cliff Sterrett‘s The Complete Color Polly and Her Pals, Vol. 1 (1991)
  • and The Complete Color Polly and Her Pals, Vol. 2 (1991), though long out of print, can still be found on amazon.com and via other online venues.

  • You can presently pre-order the forthcoming Polly and Her Pals: Complete Sunday Comics 1925-1927 at amazon.com, too (here’s that link).

  • We also recommend you check out Barnacle Press‘s gallery of Cliff Sterrett‘s Polly and Her Pals comic strips (various, from 1914-1936, incomplete) which are free and visible online right now via this link. Enjoy!

  • A number of Polly and Her Pals collections are in the Schulz Library‘s permanent collection.

    Survey 1 Comic Strip Essays: Sean Knickerbocker on “Mutt and Jeff”

    Note: This is the fifth in a series of essays written by the current Class of 2012 for Survey of the Drawn Story I, CCS’s comics history class. They are posted here in approximate chronological order of when their chosen subjects—comic strips—were either first published, or in their heyday.

    These were class assignments, and should be enjoyed in that context; these are not necessarily indicative of the work the individual artists/writers would do in paid professional venues. This is work assigned in class with a tight deadline, completed while juggling many other class assignments. That said, it is all of high caliber, or we would not be sharing it with you here. Enjoy!

    All illustrations and captions in this particular post were incorporated into the original essay, along with captions or comments in brackets [like this], by the Survey I instructor Stephen Bissette, to enhance this public post, as were the author info and “further reading” notes after the essay and author’s footnotes.

    ________________________________________________

    “Mutt and Jeff” and Bud
    by Sean Knickerbocker

    Mutt and Jeff by Bud Fisher was one of the earliest successful daily comic strips. It is often cited as being the “first comic strip” but many have brought up the notion that Bud Fisher may have gotten the idea from a daily strip called A. Piker Clerk by Clare Briggs, which ran in the Chicago American in 1903, four years before Bud Fisher’s first strip was ever published. It is also worth noting that Mutt & Jeff was originally titled A. Mutt; the original focus of the strip was on horse racing and gambling. Most of the strips followed a strict formula and featured several key tropes.

    Some of the more common tropes in a Mutt and Jeff strip include the classic “plotz” as well as characters who had their wrists bent back in such a way where their fingers jutted out to create this feather aesthetic in the hands. The characters were mostly drawn in profile with an occasional three quarters view of a character’s face. Mutt would often jump out of a window. A very common composition was a broken window with Mutt’s feet jutting out of the window frame. Another common final panel for the strip would be Mutt rushing to a bookie window. The gesture for this panel was almost always the same, all four limbs would be sprawled out, the feet wouldn’t be touching the ground, this created a radial design around the character that really expressed movement and excitement very well.

    Bud Fisher’s strip was featured as a daily in the sports section of The San Francisco Chronicle being that Mutt and Jeff was one of the earliest comic strips, there wasn’t a comics section in any newspapers at the time.  A. Mutt was almost entirely the same joke week after week. Mutt would go to the racetrack and have a hunch for a certain horse, he would bet an enormous amount of money on the race, and then more than likely loose it all. He would then have to go home and apologize to his brutish wife. I think the humor of the strip really derives from observing a character do exactly what has become expected of them to do. The humor comes from familiarity and comfort with the strip, that isn’t to say that the strip could have lasted nearly as long as it did without introducing new conflict.

    In March of 1908, the character “Jeff” was introduced. Jeff was a stout character while Mutt was a tall and gangly character, many have said that this duo created a genre of slapstick and vaudeville acts. I do believe it’s true that the strip might have inspired some similar vaudeville acts, but I think it’s worth noting that there is something inherently humorous about juxtaposing a tall, skinny character with a short, fat character. There is a visceral level of humor in seeing these two images collide; it’s a subconscious tension that is created when this sort of thing happens. Other entertainers of the time may have caught on to that idea and incorporated this into their act, but I don’t think audience members do or have ever thought “Oh like Mutt and Jeff” while seeing Laurel and Hardy. As far as character design goes, it’s also a really smart move. Having the two main characters that have exact opposite basic features guarantees that there will never be a confusion as to who is who. I think Clarity is one of the great strengths of this strip.


    [Mutt and Jeff by Bud Fisher, circa 1912. Original art scan from http://www.jhalpe.com/media/view/9/page:12%5D
    ________________

    The strip had an unusually wide format, it was originally designed to run the width of a newspaper page and be a single tier. The end result is this really long and narrow strip that almost has a film reel quality to it. I think this narrow format really forces the eye to move at a certain sort of fast pace, almost creating this Zoetrope kind of aesthetic and movement. The “camera” is almost always static, there are no close ups, long shots, high angles, or low angles. I would imagine the reason for this being that cinema was still in it’s infant stage while vaudeville and theater were still more common events. It’s interesting to point out that comics may owe just as much to film as modern film owes to comics. Bud Fisher used backgrounds sparingly and mainly focused on character gesture as well as dialogue. Besides the fact that Bud Fisher didn’t like drawing, I think it also plays to the strength of the medium. Comics can gave the reader an impression of an environment with just a few line strokes, a little bit goes a long way and it’s interesting to see this idea going almost all the way back to the beginning of the modern comic strip. Laziness aside, Fisher was right to use backgrounds sparingly. Not only does the eye focus on the movement of the characters but there is also never any confusion as to where a panel begins or ends. Bud Fisher employs the method of not using gutters, I would imagine he didn’t use gutters mainly because gutters were uncommon for the time but it really lends to the Zoetrope effect I spoke of earlier. Had Fisher been more of a draftsman and rendered more lush environments, the panels would have become muddy and the strip would have lost some clarity.

    By 1921, Bud Fisher was making $4,600 a week and then decided to hire ghost artists to draw Mutt and Jeff. Bud wasn’t a big fan of drawing, he was more interested in attending social events and squandering his money. Two of the ghost artists Bud Fisher had hired were Billy Liverpool and Ed Mack. George Herriman and Maurice Sendak had also been assistants for Fisher [generations apart – SRB]. Bud Fisher had assistants as early as 1918 but it wasn’t until 1921 that he had begun to rely on his ghost artist to do entire strips. Billy developed the Sunday topper called Cicero’s Cat in 1934. In 1932 Ed Mack had passed away which opened up a new position in the Mutt and Jeff studio. Al Smith was hired in 1932. Smith had worked on the strip from 1932 up until 1954 with his work signed as Bud Fisher. Fisher had passed away in 1954 and Al Smith began to sign the work as his own, he continued to do so up until his retirement in 1980. The strip continued for two more years and was drawn by George Breisacher. In 1982 the strip was cancelled due to lack of interest and dwindling readership.

    Cicero’s Cat was an interesting strip all on it’s own. It was a mostly pantomime comic strip about a cat named Desdemona. Desdemona was Cicero’s pet, Cicero was Mutt’s son. Desdemona was a pretty obscure character but it seems like it was just an excuse for Billy Liverpool to stretch his storyteller legs a little bit. Desdemona has a very similar look to Krazy Kat but isn’t bipedal like Krazy.

    It’s a miracle that the strip had lasted as long as it did. The interest in the strip was waning in the late 1940’s but was given a boost in readership in the 50’s when President Eisenhower praised the strip. The strip regained some popularity again in the 70’s due to a nostalgia craze. Mutt and Jeff was syndicated for 73 years. The strip had passed through the hands of many different artists and the strip’s style evolved over time, eventually the strip’s style was more identifiable as Al Smith instead of it’s original creator, Bud Fisher.

    [Mutt and Jeff and Cicero, strip by Al Smith, circa 1963.]
    ____________________

    Bud Fisher was an innovative cartoonist in the ways of business as well. Fisher owned the rights to Mutt and Jeff and he became very wealthy because of it. Early on during the success of his strip, Bud was able to hire ghost artist to do his strips for him. Little is known about Bud’s involvement with the strip at this point in his career, but I think it would be fair to say that much of the praise I give to Bud Fisher is misdirected, in fact, it’s these ghost artists that probably deserve most of the credit. So, not only was Bud a trailblazer for creator rights, he was also ironically a trailblazer for the ongoing exploitation of non business savvy cartoonists all over the world.

    In 1916 Bud Fisher had licensed his strip to be an animated cartoon short. Mutt and Jeff shorts became very popular and over 300 shorts were created of Mutt and Jeff. It was the second longest running movie serial, next to Krazy Kat. In 1918 Mutt and Jeff started running a Sunday strip, this is often cited as the point when Fisher had started having assistants to help with the strip. Between 1918 and 1934 it is a unsure how much involvement Fisher had with the strip, but in 1934 it became well known fact that Fisher was completely finished with the strip and relied wholly on his ghost artists.


    [Frame from the animated cartoon Mutt and Jeff Go On Strike, 1920.]
    _________________

    Mutt and Jeff had also reprinted in a couple of different comic books. Most notably, Mutt and Jeff had reprinted in what is widely considered to be the “first comic book” which was Famous Funnies #1. Mutt and Jeff had also later reprinted in DC’s All-American Comics.

    Bud Fisher lived very comfortably on the money that his strip had made. In 1915 Bud Fisher had a dispute with William Randolph Hearst and he had decided to move his strip to Wheeler Syndicate. The deal with Wheeler Syndicate gave Bud Fisher 60% of the gross revenue from his strip which was a drastic income increase for Fisher. In 1915 Fisher had earned over $150,000. By the 1920’s Bud was raking in over $250,000 due to tremendous growth in merchandising. Regardless of all the money Fisher had managed to make in his career as a cartoonist, he managed to squander away most of his wealth before he died in 1954.

    Mutt and Jeff established a cartoon aesthetic early on that has influenced many generations of cartoonists. Two cartoonists that appear to have a strong influence are Robert Crumb and Kevin Huizenga. Crumb employs a lot of these gangly characters with floppy feet and cheap suits as well as the highly stylized faces and gestures. Crumb’s mark making is also very similar to Mutt and Jeff. I’m specifically thinking about the technique that Crumb employs while rendering shading and texture into a characters pants. Both Crumb and Fisher use this contour hatch technique that suggests texture as well as form to the characters. Crumb also uses a lot of characters wearing these old fashioned suits and although it may be Crumb being nostalgic, it does specifically evoke images of Mutt.

    [Kevin Huizenga, Ganges #1 (2006).]

    Kevin Huizenga is a more contemporary artist who also seems to employ some of the same tricks that Bud Fisher and his assistants used. The black button eyes, the wispy line weight rendered with nib. Huizenga also uses the contour line hatching in his character’s pants as well. Perhaps it’s a short hand that has stuck with cartoonists over the years.

    While I was reading some Mutt and Jeff collections, I couldn’t help but notice an incredible amount of “Black Face” characters in the strips early run. The strip loses a lot of personality when I see these characters in the strip, it feels like another artifact of America’s struggle with bigotry that continues to this day. My argument is, that not only is “Black Face” incredibly offensive, but it’s also just really bad character design and probably even more so, it’s really lazy writing.

    Strips without gutters have come back in style recently as well, although I think many contemporary cartoonists have failed to use this method effectively. Some cartoonists have turned the idea on it’s head and created a visual unity in their pages by using intricate backgrounds that repeat in a sequence and create this textile pattern that makes a page feel whole albeit difficult to read. Ron Rege Jr. comes to mind.

    [The above essay is ©2010 Sean Knickerbocker, all rights reserved; it is posted with permission.]

    ________________________________________

    About the author/student:

  • Sean Knickerbocker has a lively blog/website, Sean Knickerbocker vs. Comics, which just about says it all.
  • (PS: You can also visit with Sean on Facebook, if you wish and he chooses to ‘friend’ you!)
  • _______

    Further reading & resources:


    [Cover to The Mutt and Jeff Cartoons: Book Two, 1911, from the Ball Publishing Company. These were among the first American bound comic strip collections ever published, and historically among the first “American comic books” sold. Image from Smithsonian Institute Libraries.]

  • NBM’s collected edition of Bud Fisher‘s Mutt and Jeff, Forever Nuts: The Early Years of Mutt and Jeff (2007), is still available at amazon.com; here’s the link.

  • The current availability of the rare, early 20th Century Ball Publishing Company and Cupples & Leon Company reprint collections of The Mutt and Jeff Cartoons can also be found at abebooks.com. Happy hunting!
  • We also recommend you check out Pulpnivoria‘s gallery of Al Smith‘s Cicero’s Cat comic strips, which are free and visible online right now via this link. Enjoy!

  • A number of Mutt and Jeff collections are in the Schulz Library‘s permanent collection.

  • For more info on the Mutt and Jeff animated cartoons, and links to viewing some of them, start at CartoonBrew.com‘s animation website/blog. Here’s a link to a 2008 post citing a recent preservation effort dedicated to rescuing some of the Mutt and Jeff animated shorts.
  • Survey 1 Comic Strip Essays: Rio Aubry Taylor on “Little Nemo in Slumberland”

    Note: This is the fourth in a series of essays written by the current Class of 2012 for Survey of the Drawn Story I, CCS’s comics history class. They are posted here in approximate chronological order of when their chosen subjects—comic strips—were either first published, or in their heyday.

    These were class assignments, and should be enjoyed in that context; these are not necessarily indicative of the work the individual artists/writers would do in paid professional venues. This is work assigned in class with a tight deadline, completed while juggling many other class assignments. That said, it is all of high caliber, or we would not be sharing it with you here. Enjoy!

    All illustrations and captions in this particular post were incorporated into the original essay, along with captions or comments in brackets [like this], by the Survey I instructor Stephen Bissette, to enhance this public post, as were the author info and “further reading” notes after the essay and author’s footnotes.

    ________________________________________________

    Little Nemo: 1904-1915
    by Rio Aubry Taylor

    This collection, published in 2000 by Taschen under the Evergreen imprint, purports to include every weekly Sunday strip featuring Little Nemo from 1904 to 1915.  Though not presenting Winsor McCay’s strips at their original size of 16 x 21 inches, this book’s sheer girth makes up for its lack of dimensions.  As it is, the measurements of the book (about 9.5 x 12.5 inches) ensure that the strips are large enough to be readable and that the collection on a whole is not unwieldy.  The reproduction of the colors and line work are crisp, bright, and pleasing to the eye and, of course, McCay’s art is beautiful and surreal.  This collection showcases some of the best surreal comics produced at a critical point in the evolution the medium.  It also demonstrates how McCay’s work does a better job at dreamlike story telling than either the traditional literature that came before or the modern media of today.

    Growing up in the 80’s and 90’s, I had always known that the character of Little Nemo existed in the multifarious milieu of children’s entertainment.  I did not, however, realize his extreme significance to the history of American cartooning.  I mostly knew Nemo as the star of the popular Nintendo title Little Nemo: The Dream Master, which I vaguely recognized as being based on an animated film. The game had Nemo explore large multi-platformed levels as he threw candy at animals who then let him ride on their backs in order to defeat enemies.  As with many video games of this type, I absolutely loved it, and the surreal backgrounds and characters seemed totally natural to my young mind.  Looking back on it now, the game’s very existence is a standing testament to McCay’s vision and influence.  I sometimes wonder how many people my age got turned on to McCay’s strips after being introduced to the character in the video game scene.

    As is stated in Bill Blackbeard’s brief introduction, the  original run of Nemo’s adventures is called Little Nemo in Slumberland but was changed to In the Land of Wonderful Dreams in 1911 when McCay changed publishers.  The earliest strips showcase Nemo’s attempts to reach Slumberland through his dreams, always aided by a different denizen of King Morpheus, the ruler of said kingdom, who wishes for Nemo to be a playmate for his daughter.  The format of these strips is straightforward and evidences McCay’s evolving style and penchant for storytelling.  In these simple adventures Nemo struggles to make it through dangerous and frightening dreamscapes with the aid of King Morpheus’s various strange and fantastical servants.  However, by the end of each strip Nemo always seems to get frazzled and lose his bearings, causing him to wake up in a tearful fright.  The last panel of every strip shows Nemo suddenly awake in his bed, where he sometimes must be consoled by one of the adult members of his family.  These early pieces often make gags of Nemo’s parents scolding him for eating some strange combination of food before bed (“The next time your mother lets you eat raw onions and ice cream before bedtime I’ll, well…”).

    Though I find these stories incredibly entertaining, I wonder if some of them may have been rather frightening to children at the time; it seems as though McCay may have intended for his strip to be read by a slightly more mature audience. For example, at one point Nemo must travel through a kingdom consisting of people made entirely of glass.  By the time the strip is over Nemo has accidentally shattered all of  that week’s supporting characters.  In another strip a giant turkey tries to bring Nemo to Slumberland by devouring his house and everything in it. Nemo’s parents feature in this dream, but get lost when the Turkey drops Nemo into a sea of cranberry sauce.  Nemo then wakes up wondering about the fate of his parents.  The strip seems to imply that Nemo’s parents might have died within his dream, a heavy notion for the average child!

    I find the first twenty or so weeks worth of material to be gratifying but slightly irksome to follow.  These early strips showcase McCay’s evolving styling as a cartoonist as he experiments with how best to present his narrative.  My largest trouble with these strips are the continually present captions at the bottom of each panel.  These captions narrate the action of the panels in such a way as to make the pictures redundant.  I find the captions especially distracting because the sentences usually do not end with their connected panels, but rather continue to the next.  This creates a disconnected flow by allowing for two parallel tellings of the same story.  The captions appear to be broken down by an arbitrary and predetermined amount space rather than anything else.  Though this style can sometimes be aggravating for the modern reader, it serves as a piece of history for those interested in the evolution both of McCay’s style and comics in general. Of course, McCay was a pioneer in his field and it did not take him long to modify his work and make it better.  In fact, throughout this entire collection the observant reader can see evidences of McCay’s experimentation and breakthroughs.

    [Flip and King Morpheus from Little Nemo in Slumberland]

    After about twenty weekly strips McCay begins to summarize each strip at the outset before telling his stories simply with the action and dialogue within the panels.  This lends to a more pleasant reading experience that gets even better ten weeks later when McCay abandons narrative captions altogether and begins to tell his stories almost entirely through dialogue.  Though some exposition sometimes occurs at the beginning of each strip, the author usually incorporates it into the tales through conversations between the characters or in-story written communication such as signs or letters.

    As stated above, the earliest strips are simple and can generally be seen as stand alone episodes.  The story really picks up, however, when McCay introduces Flip, who soon becomes a main character.  Once introduced, and until Nemo finally meets his future playmate, Flip’s sole existence seems to be to divert Nemo from reaching the princess, whom Flip would like to woo himself. Standing in stark contrast to Slumberland’s motto of “don’t wake up,” Flip’s hat actually reads “wake up,” and when he first encounters Nemo that is exactly what our protagonist does!  The initial rivalry between Flip and Nemo gives McCay a solid chance to elaborate on both Nemo and Flip’s respective personal characters. Whereas the previous strips present Nemo as a curious but rather impersonal hero, these strips showcase Nemo’s general nobleness and outstanding sense of what is right and wrong.  As the story progresses, these traits contrast heavily with Flip’s rascally and somewhat needy personality.

    [In this Sunday, November 13 1910 episode of Little Nemo in Slumberland, Nemo and his pals fly over Coney Island, such as it was before the fire that wiped out much of Coney Island’s own “Dreamland” and more. In this story sequence, Flip ended up lost on the subway system and stranded in Brooklyn!]

    _________

    Though paired together as adversaries, Nemo helps Flip on more than one occasion, simply because he believes helping people is the right thing to do.  When a Slumberland ally cautions Nemo not to help Flip, who is marooned at the top of a tower after a failed flight attempt, Nemo replies “I can’t help it.  I can’t see anybody in such a fix.  No Siree!”  Nemo, who at this time has become a giant, then proceeds to help Flip down, but is later punished for his deed by being shrunk down to mouse-like proportions.  This, however, does not stop Nemo some twenty strips later from saving Flip from being executed by King Morpheus’s royal guard.  This marks a major change in the series as Flip evolves from Nemo’s supposed worst enemy to a beloved and cantankerous ally.

    At this point McCay’s narrative really reaches a stride.  At first Nemo and the Princess constantly try to avoid Flip as though he is an annoying neighbor, but later join him in a series of adventures outside and within the royal palace of Slumberland.  During the course of their exploits they meet a host of interesting and colorful recurring characters, and even pick up another regular  ally in the form of the unfortunately stereotyped Imp.  The Imp, who appears in a supposedly tribal getup and speaks an incomprehensible nonsense language, follows Flip, Nemo, and the Princess on their adventures.  Though McCay depicts him outwardly as a savage in black-face, the Imp proves to be a valuable companion and friend to the characters who gladly employ his help when needed.  The stereotypical appearance of the Imp that McCay employs, though popular at the time, is now recognized by readers with modern sensibilities to be undeniably racist.  The fact that the Imp becomes an important part of Nemo’s entourage, however, is testament to both Nemo and the Imp’s noble character and McCay’s sense of youthful friendship.

    The question remains:  what benefits can a modern audience get from reading this collection of strips? These artfully rendered adventures offer something that can only be hinted at outside the comics medium and is still, unfortunately, rarely found even there: a truly surreal entertainment experience. Though technology has grown in leaps and bounds, these strips still represent an artistic peak in dreamlike storytelling, for which the medium of comics presents a unique link between more traditional literature and newer forms of entertainment technology.

    McCay’s Nemo strips offer superb and fantastical art that bring the reader into a special world that could not be presented in any other way.  Whereas traditional literature can present a narrative with language alone, comics have the power to immerse the reader in a visual world of the artist’s choosing.  In this, McCay succeeds in presenting his own unique graphic language in a precise and insightful narrative.  Written descriptions could simply not suffice to describe the truly splendid imagery he creates to tell his stories, as neither could a draftsman of lesser talent.  By the same token, newer technology such  as film, though offering a more sensorial experience, has the tendency to reveal too much.  What traditional literature lacks in showing a precise artistic vision, modern film makes up for by bombarding the senses with information, thereby disallowing the viewers’ imaginations from taking hold and leading them through the narrative.  Only the medium of comics could succeed in presenting the truly surreal world of Slumberland.

    The benefit of comics, which McCay uses succinctly to his advantage, lies in the fact that actions occur between the panels.  In every comic the artist must choose which scenes to present to his audience, and which actions to leave out.  The chosen scenes must be precise enough to continue the proceeding narrative.  The audience then fills in the information between the panels in much the same way a reader of traditional literature might form images of the story in his or her mind.  In a more mundane comic the panels flow continually through time and space in a linear manner.  McCay, however, has the advantage of setting his characters in a world where the normal laws of space and time do not exist.  This means that he has the freedom to manipulate the rules to an almost infinite extent in order to continue his story telling.  His genius lies in the fact that his comics remain acute and readable, containing a clearly identified story and progressive narrative while simultaneously bending the normal rules that readers must submit to in everyday waking life.  Through reading these comics the reader becomes a co-creator in McCay’s surreal world, subconsciously choosing for herself the timings and specifics of the strange occurrences between the panels.  For this reason McCay’s comics, and others like his, might represent the entertainment medium that comes closest to actually emulating a real dream.

    McCay touches on the sorts of experiences that anyone, especially children, can relate to.   Because the normal rules do not affect his characters, they exhibit a sense of youthful exuberance, unbounded by any fetters except for that of the author’s imagination, which he consistently exhibits to be quite extensive.  Nemo and company grow and shrink, meet strange and interesting creatures, and even travel to Mars, none of which seems out of the ordinary for the citizens Slumberland. Though many people may not realize it, they essentially live two lives, separated by their level of awareness and consciousness.  Most people’s dream lives remain essentially unexplored, but McCay brings the regular ritual of dreaming into full focus.  The strange adventures of Nemo and his friends showcase that other part of the human condition, the part most people neglect to talk about.  The human mind is truly fantastic, and in its most creative depths can bring forth stories that no conscious mind could.  McCay was able to reach into those depths in order to create a delightful experience that can still be enjoyed today, and for that we should be grateful!

    [The above essay is ©2010 Rio Aubry Taylor, all rights reserved; it is posted with permission.]


    ________________________________________

    About the author/student:

  • Rio Aubry Taylor has an older blog/website, Light Riot, which you can access with this link.
  • PS: Rio‘s former art/living space also made the grade in photographer Abby Banks’s photo book Punk House: Interiors in Anarchy, which you can purchase here.
  • (PPS: You can also visit with Rio on Facebook, if he chooses to ‘friend’ you!)

  • Further reading & resources:

  • For more on Winsor McCay’s influential early 20th Century comicstrip creations, see Survey 1 Comic Strip Essays: Katie Moody on Winsor McCay’s “Dream of the Rarebit Fiend.” Click this link!
  • Also be sure to read Survey I classmate Bill Bedard’s own essay on Winsor McCay’s “Little Nemo in Slumberland.” Click this link!
  • Though the book is now out of print, you can purchase your own copy of Little Nemo: 1904-1915 at amazon.com; here’s the current availability at amazon.com
  • and the current availability at abebooks.com. Happy hunting!
  • We most highly recommend editor/publisher Peter Maresca’s marvelous Little Nemo in Slumberland: So Many Splendid Sundays!, which reproduces the McCay strips in their original Sunday page dimensions; copies of are still available at amazon.com. Here’s the current availability.

  • Both books are in the Schulz Library‘s permanent collection.

  • We also most highly recommend the followup volume Little Nemo in Slumberland: Many More Splendid Sundays, Volume 2; copies of are still available at amazon.com. Here’s the current availability.

  • CCS instructor Stephen Bissette interviewed Peter Maresca back in November of 2005, when the first volume of Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland: So Many Splendid Sundays! was first published. Here’s the complete interview, archived on the original Myrant blog site.
  • Survey 1 Comic Strip Essays: Bill Bedard on “Little Nemo in Slumberland”

    Note: This is the third in a series of essays written by the current Class of 2012 for Survey of the Drawn Story I, CCS’s comics history class. They are posted here in approximate chronological order of when their chosen subjects—comic strips—were either first published, or in their heyday.

    These were class assignments, and should be enjoyed in that context; these are not necessarily indicative of the work the individual artists/writers would do in paid professional venues. This is work assigned in class with a tight deadline, completed while juggling many other class assignments. That said, it is all of high caliber, or we would not be sharing it with you here. Enjoy!

    All illustrations and captions in this particular post were incorporated into the original essay by its author, Bill Bedard. Bill also prepared them all for this online posting; thanks, Bill! Unless otherwise noted, any images accompanied by captions or comments in brackets [like this] were added by the Survey I instructor, Stephen Bissette, to enhance this public post, as were the author info and “further reading” notes after the essay and author’s footnotes.

    ________________________________________________

    Little Nemo in Slumberland
    by Bill Bedard

    Little Nemo in Slumberland by Winsor McCay is a masterful work. Published Sundays off and on from 1905-27, the strip follows the adventures of a tousle-haired boy in his dreams. The boy, Nemo, first spends his time in dreams attempting to reach Slumberland to be the playmate of the Princess, daughter of King Morpheus of Slumberland. In later strips, having achieved his goal and reached the princess, the strip follows the antics of Nemo and friends through the madcap and surreal landscapes of Slumberland. McCay’s work was ground breaking at the time, and nearly a century later still considered to be a perfect example of what potential for excellence the comics medium holds.

    While Little Nemo has ignited the imagination of many artists to chronicle their own dreamlands, some successful contemporary artists look back on Nemo with a critical eye, taking umbrage with McCay’s lines or the attention lavished upon the surreal landscapes at the expense of the characters. These criticisms are to a degree very valid, but must be considered not only in the framework of a single Sunday page, but as an ongoing part of thousands of single stories that work together to tell a narrative. In this way, a character like Nemo, who may appear flat may in fact be a multifaceted hero whose character and personality is simply divulged over a course of months and years.

    Nemo’s bed goes for a walk; 1905, The New York Herald.

    _____

    Finding Fault with Nemo

    One of the most common criticisms that Little Nemo receives is that Slumberland, along with all the other fantastical dream lands that are visited in Nemo, including the North Pole and Mars, are treated with more deference than the human/dream beings are afforded. Bill Waterson of Calvin and Hobbes fame lamented in an article:

    “To be perfectly honest, however I admire Little Nemo more than I actually like it. McCay was clearly more interested in his stage than in his actors, and a stage, no matter how grand, can’t carry a play. The inventive visual effects notwithstanding, I can’t read the strip without thinking how much more enchanting Slumberland would be if the characters, rather than the backdrops and costumes, advanced the story.”

    Watterson called the characters “cardboard dressup dolls” and cited the word balloons done by McCay as evidence that story was a pale second in comparison with the design of the world itself. He pointed out that the balloons tend to seem like a squished in afterthought- not part of the page design until the eleventh hour. Watterson also noted that dialogue generally fails to use characters’ voice as a way to describe them. He excluded Flip Flop the clown from this generality, but Nemo and the rest had nothing but “flat, exclamatory dialogue or overuse of exposition.”

    In this strip from the NY Herald, Thanksgiving Day 1905, Nemo doesn’t say anything in word balloons that doesn’t rehash the captions or end up as a call for his mother or father. This doesn’t stop the strip from being an ingenius reversal of who normally gobbles whom on Turkey Day. The title panels and page design on the whole are excellently crafted, and even the celery stalk forest mirrors the white verticals of the nightshirts in the upper panels.

    In this sequence from 1905 in the NY Herald, Nemo and the Imp are lost as giants in a city. The dialogue balloons do not actually mirror the action, but still may feel as if they were put in as “afterthoughts” by McCay, due to the their organic and “smooshed” look.

    ______________

    Measuring Up to the Environment

    In some cases Watterson and others’ claims are certainly true, and the interaction and dialogue between Nemo, Flip and other denizens of Slumberland appears flat in comparison to the charm and personality that Slumberland itself can affect during the course of a Sunday strip.

    However, a close examination of McCay’s work as a whole reveals a variety of personality and growth for the main characters. Nemo’s own reticent nature may have been a purposeful choice on the part of McCay.

    Richard Marschall, editor of The Best of Little Nemo in Slumberland, wrote in his introduction to that book that Nemo’s name, the Latin translation of which is “No-One,” may actually have been a conscious decision to keep the main character as bland or passive as possible. According to Marschall, Nemo is the “every-man dreamer” who corresponds to the reader. Famed illustrator Maurice Sendak wrote of Nemo that one reason for his quietude and reticence during the journeys through Slumberland is that “Nemo lacks savior-faire. He is naive and as simple and straightforward as apple pie.”

    Descriptions of McCay’s characters as one-dimensional suggest readings of McCay’s work as single pages instead of as parts of a larger narrative whole. Nemo isn’t passive to the actions of Slumberland and supporting cast. Flip, the main antagonist and later a sort of “buddy” for Nemo may jump off the page at times with his zany jealousy and rivalries, but Nemo grows into his role as Slumberland explorer.

    Sendak actually laments one of the ways in which Nemo grows into his character, where Nemo and Flip come to blows, and Nemo wins. Sendak wrote: “A sad victory: Nemo exchanges childhood for manhood, never thinking he might have both.”

    Even in strips sans Flip, where Nemo plays off the Princess or a missive from Morpheus, his own personality comes through. In the case of Somnus, the horse he is given to arrive in Slumberland, Nemo is challenged to a race and lets his pride get the best of him—he is thrown off the horse and lands in bed. (1904, NY Herald)

    A second example is the moment where Nemo, overwhelmed by his desire for the beautiful Queen Crystalite, takes her in his arms in a big kiss and breaks her into a million pieces. (1906, NY Herald)

    _______

    While these emotive experiences do seem to fit in Sendak’s assertion that Nemo is perhaps exchanging his boyhood for manhood, Nemo’s personality does not seem to be permanently altered by the strips. The next Sunday, he is back to be being an unsure and cautious dreamer in a world which, many times, turns dangerous at any moment. These moments of assertive (and usually wrong-headed) “adultness” combined with his passivity and fearful approach as a child in a dangerous dreamworld serve to make Nemo a complete whole, instead of a onedimensional character who serves as a foil for the Slumberland and Flip. Just as dreams can have the dreamer childlike and afraid one night and aggressive the next, McCay allows Nemo the full range of possibilities.

    Above and below: Three examples from the NY Herald of Nemo being his non-character “coward” self afraid of an ogre, and then more expressive, five years later in an adventure on Mars.

    It’s Not All “Agout” Nemo

    Nemo isnt’ the only character who blossoms with a more complete reading of the work. Secondary characters evolve and change with the plot as well, as is the case when the brooding and wise Morpheus gets painful gout (NY Herald, 2 Jan, 1910) or later Nemo strips when the Princess and Nemo engage in play dates and get into trouble. Being secondary characters, they still aren’t as fully fleshed out as Nemo and Flip, but having them change means they are more than just the “brooding king” and “lonely princess” archetypes they seem at first brush.

    Gouty Morpheus, NY Herald, 2 Jan, 1910

    ________

    Hidden in Plain Sight

    What critics of the strip often forget is that Nemo, Flip and the denizens of Slumberland aren’t the only characters in McCay’s works. Slumberland itself is as much a character as any of the actors on its stage. When the strip was reinvented under a different name because of legal issues with the publisher owning the rights to the name of Little Nemo in Slumberland the strip name didn’t even include “Nemo.” Instead, it was penned as In the Land of Wonderful Dreams. Later, when the rights reverted and the strip was rebooted in the 1920s Nemo’s appellation did return. However, during the most popular Nemo strips (those taking place from 1908-1912) a main driving force behind action and narrative isn’t just the titular boy, it’s the world in which he finds himself.

    In Slumberland’s case many of the events that happen to normal comic book heroes, such as growth, change, conflict and resolution are present (sadly, most often the resolution for Slumberland is that the place falls to pieces or melts as a result of sunlight and deposits Nemo back into consciousness).

    In a typical Slumberland scene, Nemo is told not to touch something, he does, and as a result, unravels the very fabric of Slumberland. (1905, NY Herald)

    ______

    Right: Famed European illustrator Jean Giraud, aka “Moebius,” cites Little Nemo as a great influence in his work and worked on his own version of the tale in 1994.

    Watterson also presented a critique of the design of Slumberland itself, saying that the environments look too “sterile” and, like his opinion of the characters, are more superficial than substantive. While McCay uses an art noveau line, which at times almost borders on (or also influenced– as in the case of many European artists like Moebius) the ligneclaire style, a question of sterility ends up really being a matter of taste. A reason for Watterson’s criticism could be simply that the differences between McCay’s architectural marvels and the and expressionistic planets or jungles that Watterson’s brushwork conjured are extreme. Again, it comes down to personal style. Watterson’s planets could not exist without Spaceman Spiff, but Slumberland doesn’t need Nemo to work.

    Great cartoonists like Watterson may not like McCay’s style, but there is no arguing with the care and talent with which McCay impregnated each page. “Every page is a marvel of design and ornament,” Watterson wrote. “The constant invention ,the playful distortions, the subtle coloring, the panoramas of architectural splendor… never has another comic strip taken such full advantage of the visual possibilities for surprise.”

    Sources: “A (Very) Short Bibliography”:

    Images and articles from The Best of LIttle Nemo in Slumberland, Richard Marschall. 1997, Stewart, Tabori and Chang, NY, NY.

    Quotes from Maurice Sendak were excerpted from his essay “An Elaborate and Audacious Fantasy,” first published in 1973.

    [The above essay is ©2010 Bill Bedard, all rights reserved; it is posted with permission.]

    ________________________________________

    About the author/student:

  • Bill Bedard has a blog/website, which you can access with this link. Pay it a visit, won’t you?

  • Further reading & resources:

  • For more on Winsor McCay’s influential early 20th Century comicstrip creations, see Survey 1 Comic Strip Essays: Katie Moody on Winsor McCay’s “Dream of the Rarebit Fiend.” Click this link!
  • You can purchase your own copy of The Best of Little Nemo in Slumberland at amazon.com; here’s the current availability.
  • We also most highly recommend editor/publisher Peter Maresca’s marvelous Little Nemo in Slumberland: So Many Splendid Sundays!, which reproduces the McCay strips in their original Sunday page dimensions; copies of are still available at amazon.com. Here’s the current availability.

  • This book is in the Schulz Library’s permanent collection.

  • We also most highly recommend the followup volume Little Nemo in Slumberland: Many More Splendid Sundays, Volume 2; copies of are still available at amazon.com. Here’s the current availability.
  • CCS instructor Stephen Bissette interviewed Peter Maresca back in November of 2005, when the first volume of Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland: So Many Splendid Sundays! was first published. Here’s the complete interview, archived on the original Myrant blog site.

  • Halloween Heroes of Vermont

    October 31st represents not only the end of a autumnal month here in Vermont with trees ablaze in their colorful death but a time consumed by costumed celebration. Betsey Swardlick (CCS ’11) below pens an essay on the connection betwixt the town of Rutland and the comics universe.

    White River Junction, a town that takes pride in its vibrant artistic community, has an annual Halloween Parade sporting human-sized butterfly puppets swooping above the crowd, a glorious, flame-belching Fire Organ, and a procession of costumed revelers wending their way through the town center. With over two dozen art studios nestled into the downtown this is not your Grandma’s holiday craft crowd. With the addition of The Center for Cartoon Studies in 2005, a yearly influx of cartoonists added yet another element of creativity to the town and to the parade.

    As the school gains national and international notice for its growing contribution to the comics field, the town can boast a unique place in the art world. White River Junction is one funky little Vermont town made famous by comics. But we have to remember that an hour to the west, the slightly larger town of Rutland has a venerable connection to comics and Halloween that has exercised some of the most creative and influential talents in the comics industry.

    In 1959, Rutland held its first Halloween Parade, consisting largely of the high school marching band and one kid in a Casper the Friendly Ghost costume. So how did this quaint bit of rural revelry become one of the largest and most beloved Halloween events in the country? How did it garner the notoriety to inspire DC and Marvel Comics to set superhero stories in its midst? Ask around and the locals will tell you about Tom Fagan.

    Rutland local Tom Fagan saw the inaugural parade and thought, “Not bad, but I think it could be better.”Recreation Chief Commissioner John Cioffredi took him at his word and appointed him general chairman of the event for 1960. Fagan, an enthusiastic follower of DC’s Batman comics, chose the all-encompassing theme of “Creatures of the Night,” and set to work knitting hispassion for comics into his newly-acquired civic duty. The second Rutland Halloween Parade featured a Batman float, with the Caped Crusader himself (Fagan, incognito) as parade marshall. Fagan wrote letters to Detective Comics, the publisher of Batman and other titles starring heroes, such as Superman, informing readers that Batman was now the leader of the Rutland Parade. A tradition was established.

    Fagan’s love of comics infused the parade with an energy that kept Rutland engaged year after year. In that time before specialized comic book stores and only a very few, small comics conventions, there were few opportunities for comics fans to celebrate their interest. With Tom Fagan at the helm, the Rutland Halloween Parade grew from a simple town event to a celebration of comics fandom so great it spread not only to fans and to professional writers and artists of comics, but even to the content of the comics themselves. In 1965, Fagan attended a convention in New York city hosted by Dave Kaler, fan-turned-writer for Charlton Comics. Fagan invited Dave and another Charlton writer, Roy Thomas, to the Rutland Parade. By that time, the single Batman float had grown into a cavalcade of more and more comics characters, saluting the crowds and returning their cheers.

    The post-parade party for the volunteers added to the event’s appeal and quickly became legendary. Housed first in an old Victorian home on Pine Street, and later moved to the old Governor’s Mansion known as the Clement House, the party was Fagan’s “thank you” to all those who volunteered their time and energy to the parade. By the end of the 1960s, some 200 to 300 people flocked to the mansion each year. As Fagan attended more comics conventions he found the parade had started to build a reputation among cartoonists, some of whom remembered his letters in Detective Comics. Fagan would invite them to see the parade for themselves, and by 1968, notable DC writers such as Marv Wolfman, Len Wein, and Mark Hanerfield made the trek to Rutland.

    In 1970, the bridge between comics culture and comics mythology was crossed when the Rutland Parade was written into the Marvel Universe. Roy Thomas (then working for Marvel), was so taken by the parade and its energy that he set Avengers #83, “The Lady Liberators,” in Rutland during the event. Thomas also wrote himself, Fagan, and Fagan’s wife Jeanie into the book, marking the first of many cameos of real people to be made by Marvel and DC staff in subsequent Rutland stories. The parade even inspired the first inter-company crossover in 1973, when Steve Engleheart, Gerry Conway, and Len Wein teamed up to write a three-part story featuring themselves, Tom Fagan, and heroes and villains from both the Marvel and DC universes. Between 1970 and the present, the Rutland Halloween parade was featured in no fewer than fifteen separate issues of multiple titles by Marvel, DC, and WaRP Graphics. The most recent appearance was in 1997, in DC’s Superboy and the Ravers #16.

    Although Tom Fagan had retired from his post as parade chairman by the mid-2000s, he continued to attend as a special guest and costume judge until his death in 2008, just a few weeks shy of Halloween. Though Fagan is gone, the spirit of the parade remains true to his original vision. The parade celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2009, and will continue to bring comics fans together for years to come.

    The Center for Cartoon Studies is proud to present this exhibit about Rutland’s Halloween Heroes, their parade, and their comics. Two small Vermont towns, not far apart, play unlikely roles in that most American of art forms, the comic book.

    -Betsey Swardlick (CCS ’11)

    The Halloween Heroes Exhibit will open this Friday, October 29th from 5pm to 8pm. Gallery hours will continue every Saturday from 10am to 2pm at the Center for Cartoon Studies in the heart of White River Junction, Vermont. You can’t miss us, we have a window display with a robot. To take part in the White River Junction GORY DAZE parade, please show up at the Main Street Museum at 9pm on Saturday, October 30th. It’s at 58 Bridge Street right by these wooden sculptures (charming cartoonists no doubt will be covered in Halloween frippery)

    To download this article, please click here.

    -Jen Vaughn