Halloween Horrors: Pre-Code Reprints Rule! Briefer’s Frankenstein from IDW

We’re in an age of amazing reprint volumes resurrecting all genres of comics history—but this is the last week in October, so it’s time to carve out some space for two of the latest Pre-Code horror comicbook collections!

And who better to begin with than…

Frankenstein!!!
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Comics archivist/scholar/historian/collector/editor Craig Yoe has been behind some of the most invigorating of the new collections of ancient work, including George Herriman’s Krazy + Ignatz “Tiger Tea,” The Golden Collection of Klassic Krazy Kool Kids Komics, Felix the Cat: The Great Comic Book Tails, Dan DeCarlo’s Jetta, The Art of Ditko, and two recently reviewed here on the Schulz Library Blog,

  • Boody: The Bizarre Comics of Boody Rogers
  • and The Complete Milt Gross: Comics Books and Life Story.
  • True to his love of vintage comics creators who embrace both the bizarre and the bawdy, Yoe‘s 2010 Halloween seasonal release this month offers a definitive collection of the one Pre-Code horror comic that schizophrenically shifted between the hilarious and the horrific: Dick Briefer’s Frankenstein!

    As Yoe details in this new volume’s excellent (and heavily illustrated) introduction, Briefer (1915-1980) attended classes in the late 1930s under Robert Brackman at New York City’s famed Art Students League before starting his comicbook career laboring in the Will Eisner/Jerry Iger sweatshop. Among Briefer’s earliest creations were an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (for Jumbo Comics; Yoe offers a reproduction of the first installment’s splash page), space heroes Rex Dexter (for Mystery Men Comics) and Crash Parker (Planet Comics), “The Pirate Prince” (for Silver Streak and Daredevil), Yankee Longago (Boy Comics), Biff Bannon (Speed Comics), and superheroes like Dynamo, Real American #1 (yep, that was his name!), Target and the Targeteers, and the Human Top, among others.

    Like many Golden Age creators, Briefer was incredibly prolific (at the meager page rates available, the only way to keep a roof overhead and food on the table was to grind out pages as quickly as possible) and worked under a variety of nom de plumes as well as his own name. Among the pseudonymous strips some comics scholars attribute to Briefer were the adventures of Communist hero Pinky Rankin for The Daily Worker (a stint that may or may not have been Briefer’s work, and may or may not have landed Briefer on McCarthy era blacklists).

    Briefer‘s claim to fame, however, was and remains his innovative horror comic series “The New Adventures of Frankenstein,” which debuted in Prize Comics #7 (cover dated December 1940, meaning it hit the racks in the fall of that year). Briefer did everything—script, lettering, pencils, inks—on this new feature for the Crestwood Publishing Company (aka Feature Publication and Prize Comics), which may have been the first contemporary spin on Mary Shelley‘s venerable 1818 source novel.

    The catalyst for Briefer’s resurrection of Shelley’s immortal monster was arguably the 1939 Universal Pictures re-release of the two feature films that launched their beloved 1930s horror cycle, Tod Browning‘s Dracula (1930) and James Whale‘s Frankenstein (1931). Universal had abandoned the genre by the mid-1930s, due in part to the loss of the entire British (and British colonies) market, where horror films were proving less and less marketable since the British censors had instituted the dreaded ‘H’ certificate. By the end of the decade, Universal’s fortunes had dwindled, and the surprise success of a regional “midnight movie” showing of the Dracula/Frankenstein double-feature prompted Universal to roll the double-bill out nationally and to rekindle their horror line with the production of an all-new Frankenstein entry, Rowland V. Lee‘s Son of Frankenstein (1939). It was a smash hit, saving Universal’s fortunes and kicking off a whole new horror movie cycle that lasted into the mid-1940s (ending with Universal’s parody Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, 1948).

  • National Periodicals (aka DC Comics) featured an unusual photo roman (aka photo fumetti) adaptation of Son of Frankenstein in the debut issue of Movie Comics that same year (for more, and to read the complete eight-page “Son of Frankenstein” comic story, click this link for the first of four installments at Myrant).
  • Whether Briefer was directly or indirectly inspired to launch his own Frankenstein comic series by the revival of the Universal monster movie series and/or the Movie Comics adaptation, who can say? The fact is, those were the most direct precursors to Briefer’s series, which took the public’s conflation of the creator (Frankenstein) and his monster (Frankenstein’s monster) as a given—the monster was Frankenstein in name—and ran with it. Briefer took the public’s identification of the monster with its creator one step further, signing the original installments “by Frank N. Stein.”

    “I had a hard time convincing the publisher that [Shelley’s Frankenstein] was in public domain,” Briefer told interviewer Howard Leroy Davis, but it was, and Briefer thrust the monster into a new life with Prize Comics #7’s revisionist take on the monster’s birth. Beginning as an apparent Gothic, Briefer depicted Dr. Victor Frankenstein’s construction of the monster from “the dead bodies of scores of men” in an efficient single page; by page three, the monster was on the loose, and by page five (“one fine day at the zoo…”), 1939 readers were begin to fathom that this resurrection had somehow taken place in then-modern-day America! Briefer had his monster escaping the zoo on an elephant, terrorizing the Big Apple, climbing the Statue of Liberty and sparing the life of his creator as an act of revenge:

    “I spared you to live—to live in misery also—to watch and see the suffering and grief that I, your creation, will cause the human race!”

    And so it began! Briefer’s original series was indeed a straight horror-adventure comic, the first of its kind in American comics history (seven to eight years before the first horror anthology comics surfaced with Avon’s 1947 one-shot Eerie #1 and American Comic Group’s long-lasting periodical Adventures Into the Unknown, which debuted in 1948). Craig Yoe offers the first three installments of Briefer’s initial series (pp. 21-44 of the collection)—which includes the monster’s one-on-one urban battle with a crocodile man—whetting one’s appetite for a complete reprint collection of the entire Briefer original series.

    Briefer’s revamp of the monster’s design emulated some aspects of Universal makeup genius Jack Pierce‘s original ‘look’ for actor Boris Karloff‘s movie incarnation of the monster: the squared-off skull, the ragged sutures across the forehead, the cadaverous pallor and sunken cheeks. But Briefer skirted any legal claims Universal might have made by traumatically rearranging the monster’s facial features, squashing the flattened nose directly beneath the knobby brows and between the outsized eyes, and dispensing with the electrode (“bolts”) protruding from the neck. Briefer’s monster was indeed hideous, and Briefer cranked out a tsunami of terror tales featuring the creature through to the April 1945 issue of Prize Comics #52 and the launch of Frankenstein in his own title that same year.

    Prize Comics #53’s “Frankenstein and the Beanstalk” was the last of the fantasy-horror Briefer Frankensteins; with a new original story in Frankenstein #1 (“Frankenstein’s Creation,” reprinted complete in the Yoe collection, pp. 45-59) and Prize Comics #53’s “Pour Out Your Heart,” Briefer redirected his ongoing feature, transforming it into an adsurdist kid-friendly horror-comedy comic!

    By this point, Briefer’s distinctively fluid brushwork had become absolutely breezy and more expressive than ever, and the complete change in tempo, temper, and tone suited his brushline. It was a new lease on life for Briefer and his beloved monster, whose nose slid progressively further up into his browline within the pages of Frankenstein #1 alone (as demonstrated in this collection’s generous reprint of no less than three stories from that historic first issue)!

    By 1947, Briefer was writing and drawing Frankenstein (now labeled “The Merry Monster”) for Prize Comics and for the character’s solo series (!). Editor Yoe offers two other Briefer comedic Frankenstein stories from this period, “Blooperman” (from Frankenstein #8, July-August 1947), included herein due to its pointed satire on the most popular four-color superhero of them all (and in case you’ve any doubt, Briefer’s satiric byline for the story, “by Seagull & Shoestring,” puts paid to that), and the beguiling Spirit parody “The Girl with the Bewitching Eyes” (from Frankenstein #15, September-October 1948). Well, I’d tag it as an Eisner parody, if only for its femme fatale, Zona, but the whole of Briefer’s approach to this one Frankenstein tale smacks of Eisner’s iconic 1940s body of work.

    Briefer’s Frankenstein shifted gears again with the hardcore horror comics boom of the early 1950s, and Yoe offers a quartet of Frankenstein tales from Briefer’s return to horror amid the Pre-Code horror swamp. “Tomb of the Living Dead” (Frankenstein #20, August-September 1952), “Friendly Enemies!” (from #24, April-May 1953), “The She-Monster” (#28, January 1954) and “The Tree of Death” (#31, June-July 1954) are indeed representative of the swansong years of Briefer’s series. These aren’t the stories I’d have selected from this period in Briefer’s horror series (there are better ones, to my mind), but they’re interesting enough horror tales, sparked with inventive imagery and bits of business. Sadly, they lack the energy of Briefer’s earlier stories. Even the brushwork denotes his exhaustion with the 14-year-run, though ever the pro, Briefer doesn’t short-shrift the reader: the storytelling is crisp, clear, and the narratives provide enough twists to keep even the most jaded genre reader’s interest.

    With Dick Briefer’s Frankenstein, archivist/editor/packager Craig Yoe continues to provide a service to the comics community. While this tome is as stylishly produced as all Yoe’s books—if anything, the cool die cutting of Frankenstein’s eyes lends this volume an appropriately children’s storybook flavor—Yoe has finally addressed the one complaint I have with too many of such compilations: Craig cites the original publication source, date, and year of publication on the first page of every story. Kudos, Craig, and here’s hoping this practice becomes standard operating procedure for all future collections.

    Per usual, the color reproduction from the original comics retains the flavor of the Pre-Code four-color showcases, and the restoration work on the stories themselves is exquisite. While the Briefer Frankenstein comic stories have periodically been reprinted in the years since Briefer’s death—including reprints in Dr. Frankenstein’s House of 3D (1992), the Cracked monster magazines Cracked Monster Party (1988) and Monsters Attack! (1989-90), and a recent black-and-white paperback reprint volume entitled The Monster of Frankenstein (2006)—this current collection eclipses them all handily, while offering the most comprehensive overview of Briefer’s life, work, and the arc of the Frankenstein comics stories Briefer single-handedly created.

    Yoe spices the stew with a generous helping of Briefer artwork from his other Frankenstein efforts, including his ill-fated comic strip proposal(s), stages of work (roughs, pencils, inks) preserved from Briefer’s process, and an eye-popping array of cover reconstructions Briefer painted and drew for fans later in his life.

    Dick Briefer’s Frankenstein is the ideal Halloween/Christmas gift for any monster-lovin’ comics reader, and establishes a welcome new threshold for the entire Yoe/IDW line of reprint volumes. This is highly recommended reading, and as with all the Yoe collections, a grand entertainment from cover to cover.

    – Stephen R. Bissette, Mountains of Madness, VT

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    Survey 1 Comic Strip Essays: Andy Warner on Lyonel Feininger’s “The Kin-Der-Kids” & “Wee Willie Winkie’s World”

    Note: This is the second 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!

    Unless otherwise noted, any image 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. All illustrations in this particular post were added by the instructor.

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    Lyonel Feininger: Lost Expressionist Master of the Sunday Comics Page
    by Andy Warner
    (CCS, Class of 2012)

    The brightest stars shine briefest. The light of Lyonel Feininger’s brilliant comics may have winked out due to a contractual dispute, but still now, over a century after they were produced, they seem too wonderful, too weird, to have existed even for the single year he was active in the medium. Although Feininger made a name for himself in painting and printmaking (he designed the cover for the Bauhaus 1919 manifesto, was associated with several expressionist groups in Germany, and even had the distinction of being labeled “degenerate artist” by the Third Reich), the tall, gangly German-American artist’s cartoon output was limited to two strips he created in 1906 for The Chicago Sunday Tribune: The Kin-Der-Kids and Wee Willie Winkie’s World. Even a cursory glance at these large-format Sunday pages is a visceral experience. Feininger was making comics like no one else in his era. Before Egon Schiele met Gustav Klimt, just as Picasso and Braque were developing what would become cubism, Feininger’s comics exploded in glorious color from the pages of the Tribune. His figures move at odd angles, all limbs, hands and caricatured faces. The environment, while expressly the focus of Wee Willie’s World has an incredible vitality in both strips. Waves crash and smash, lightning tears jagged lines through the sky, clouds loom impossibly large and city alleyways tilt insanely. In no small feat, the worlds that Feininger creates make Windsor McCay’s Little Nemo dreamscapes seem almost static by comparison.

    The Kin-Der-Kids is the more developed of the two strips. Like other comics of the era, it begins with an introduction to the cast of characters. Right off the bat, Feininger impresses upon his readers that this will be no ordinary cartoon. As could be expected by the title, the action revolves around the adventures of the three Kin-Der brothers, Daniel Webster, Pie-Mouth, and Strenuous Teddy. The character designs revel in their own weirdness. Daniel Webster, ostensibly the leader of the group and thus the focus of the readers’ sympathies, is a pale to the point of jaundiced, prematurely balding bookworm with a vast forehead, deeply creased with worry lines. He is dressed in funereal black and throughout the course of the strip, rarely removes his nose from whatever book he can find. Pie-Mouth is a grotesquely fat child blessed with a perpetually gaping maw that he stuffs constantly with whatever grub he can lay his greedy hands on. Strenuous Teddy is a preternaturally strong redhead who can usually be relied upon to get the Kids out of a tight spot. The supporting characters are no less strange. Daniel Webster’s dog, Sherlock Bones, is a gaunt little blue Dachshund with all the sadness of the world in his eyes. Rounding out the crew is Little Japansky, a clockwork water baby found at the bottom of the ocean. A technological marvel presumed lost by a marauding Japanese submarine, he’s the tireless mechanical workhorse that powers the leaky bathtub the Kin-Der-Kids go adventuring in. Their nemesis is Aunt Jim-Jam, a severely attired matron who’s not above engaging in a footrace through the streets of London in order to administer the boys their hated dose of castor oil. Unrelenting as a hell hound, she’s accompanied in this quest by the ludicrously dressed Cousin Gussie, and a disturbingly featured, small yellow man with thinning hair named Buggins. Last, but certainly not least bizarre, is Mysterious Pete, a supernatural being of unexplained origin clad in chaps and a cowboy had who rides around on a cloud with his trusty hound and guns down waterspouts with a six-shooter.

    After this brief introduction, The Kin-Der-Kids begins in media res with the boys already sailing past Ellis Island in a bathtub. How did they get there? Where did Japansky come from? Where are they even going, and why in a bath tub? Nothing is explained. In the second strip, Mysterious Pete shows up with instructions for their “trip,” but the reader is not privy to them. By the third strip, the Kids are harpooning whales. Feininger seems wholly uninterested in giving his readers any kind of grounding whatsoever. This works to the advantage of the strip, giving the unfolding action a crazed, madcap intensity right from the get-go. Feininger took advantage of the week-to-week format of the newspaper strip to work in a fashion that was still unusual at the time, a sustained serial narrative. The Kids brave a storm, Pie-Mouth’s eating binges and an enormous fish before the action shifts to Mysterious Pete alerting Aunt Jim-Jam to their whereabouts. Castor oil in tow, Aunt Jim-Jam and Cousin Gussie borrow a hot air balloon and the hunt is on. The rest of the strip’s brief run consists of the Kids escaping first to England, and then to Russia. The three have a spate of encounters with the locals in each country. They play rugby, race submarines and have competitions of strength with the British. In Russia, they’re taken captive by bomb wielding troops who, still stung by the Russo-Japanese war the previous year, believe Japansky to be a spy. Without fail, Aunt Jim-Jam, traveling by balloon, boat or insane flying machine, eventually shows up to terrorize the boys. After a final gag involving Pie-Mouth getting a sore tooth, the strip ends as abruptly as it began. The Kids are mid-adventure, stranded in Russia with Aunt Jim-Jam’s arrival imminent. No explanation is given for termination, and no denouement allowed.

    Wee Willie Winkie’s World, Feininger’s second strip for The Chicago Tribune, is no less strange. Bearing an obvious debt to McCay’s Little Nemo, the strip follows the titular character, a young boy, through a strange world of imagination. Unlike Nemo, however, Wee Willie Winkie expressly takes place in the real world (although on two occasions it recounts the protagonist’s dreams). The magical and strange environment, around which the whole of the action and story revolves, is entirely a product of Willie Winkie’s daydreams and confused perception. Everything surrounding him is anthropomorphized. Trees swaying in the wind become dancers; stone houses acquire character, wants and needs. Occasionally the fantasy is broken, Willie Winkie nears an object he thought to be an elephant and sees it to be only a tree trunk, but just as often, his vision of the world is presented as fact. Thunder clouds are massive giants the size of the sky, striding across the countryside. Water pumps are sleepy old gentlemen, sputtering gouts of liquid when their ponytails are pulled.

    While the art style of Wee Willie Winkie’s World is quite similar to that of The Kin-Der-Kids, the format could not be more different. The hallmark feverish action of The Kin-Der-Kids is replaced by a calm meditative pace, following Willie Winkie as he sleepily contemplates his surroundings. The story in The Kin-Der-Kids is told exclusively through dialogue and visual action, and the strip is marked by a complete lack of third person narration. Wee Willie Winkie’s World, by contrast, is composed entirely of it. Indeed, the prose is separated entirely from the art, and set below the panel frames. This gives the impression of a children’s book, a mood Feininger further reinforces by using type, rather than the hand drawn text of The Kin-Der-Kids. There is no real story to speak of in Wee Willie Winkie’s World. The only thread of narrative that exists is spent on following Willie Winkie as he ambles through his world. The focus is squarely on the environment.

    In terms of character design, Willie Winkie bears some superficial resemblance to Daniel Webster. He possesses an unusually furrowed brow and is clad in a similar outfit. The black of Daniel Webster’s clothes, however, is replaced by a childish blue and Willie Winkie’s features are open and engaged. Where Daniel Webster is always facing inwards and down, forever lost in his books, Willie Winkie is only interested in the world around him. Aside from Willie Winkie, the only other real character in Wee Willie Winkie’s World is Feininger himself. The reader is meant to interpret the narration as a story, originally told to Feininger by Willie Winkie, retold to them through the comic. He appears only once in the strip, almost hidden in the corner of a panel, having accompanied his creation on a trip to an outcropping of seaside cliffs. He is a tall, thin figure, dwarfing Willie Winkie’s small frame as he sketches a panorama the boy points out to him.

    Wee Willie Winkie’s World, above all, demonstrates the total mastery Feininger possessed in the art of caricature. The artist had spent the 17 years previous working as an increasingly celebrated caricaturist for German and American magazines, including Harper’s Round Table, Humoristische Blätter, and Ulk. In Wee Willie Winkie’s World, this skill is used to great effect. An astonishing variety of faces burst from every possible place, from dour locomotives to shivering and nervous poplar trees. Other stylistic influences abound. Wee Willie Winkie’s World is structured along symmetrical grids, with big soaring panels. In their gutters, most frequently to break up the narration along the bottom, but also occasionally between the panels themselves, Feininger inserts beautiful and bizarre ornamentations. These take the form of trees, leaves, medusa-like heads, grinning jesters and heavenly bodies. Their place in the composition of the page is obviously influenced by Art Nouveau, but Feininger replaces the flowing curves of that style with his trademark chunky angles and geometric forms. A red eyed mouse frolicking in the gutter of a strip otherwise concerned with Willie Winkie’s take on a windmill is strongly reminiscent of Japanese woodblock prints. In one strip, the ornamentations even bear a striking resemblance to Mondrian and De Stijl. As that movement had yet to be born, however, it can be assumed that these exercises in color and line are Feininger’s own experimentations.

    Although he’d worked in illustration and caricature for years, Feininger came to comics through a chance opportunity, and left them much the same way. He was born in 1871 in New York City to German speaking parents. He possessed a childhood fascination for steamboats and locomotives that would leave its mark on both his comics and fine art, and showed an early aptitude for drawing. While he wouldn’t create comics until the age of 35, he was influenced in his childhood by American cartoonists and the margins of the letters he wrote as a young man to his friend and fellow artist, Alfred Vance Churchill are filled with expressive and expertly rendered cartoon sketches. Feininger left America for Germany in 1888 to attend art school, and adopted the land of his parents as his own. For the next decade and a half, he sold caricatures to humor magazines, often chafing against the demands of his editors.

    Meanwhile, back in America, newspaper comics were experiencing a golden age. In 1905, when Windsor McCay was tapped to demonstrate the artistic potential of Sunday comics with Little Nemo in the pages of The New York Herald, other newspapers took note. Amongst them was James Keeley, editor of The Chicago Tribune. Deciding not to be outdone and wanting to appeal to Chicago’s large German population, Keeley traveled to Berlin in February of 1906 to procure the services of a bevy of German cartoonists for his full color Sunday pages. Feininger met Keeley, and, seduced by the promise of a steady income of 24,000 marks for his services, agreed to produce the two weekly strips for the Tribune. Problems began almost immediately. The vibrancy and joy of the Kin-Der-Kids and Wee Willie Winkie’s World disguised a troubled relationship between Feininger and the editorial staff. The Tribune had wanted a strip to compete with the Katzenjammer Kids’ repetitive joke-a-week format, but The Kin-Der-Kids’ fever dream of a sustained narrative immediately derailed their plans. Circulation dropped, the cartoonists were blamed and The Kin-Der-Kids was axed, with Wee Willie Winkie’s World replacing it. This did little to staunch the bleeding, and by winter of that year, Feininger was gone from the pages of the Chicago Tribune, and gone from comics forever. The exact circumstances surrounding his departure remain somewhat mysterious. Some sources cite a personal dispute between Feininger and the Tribune’s editors, others point to the burden of producing detailed weeklies as proving too much for the artist, while others place the blame on Feininger’s unwillingness to move back to America. Regardless of the details of his dismissal, Feininger’s greatest fame lay ahead of him. Although he achieved his highest heights in other artistic mediums, it is truly a pity that his comic output is so small. In the single year he was active, he established a more unique style and world than those that many cartoonists spend lifetimes creating.

    Sources:
    Thompson, Kim. The Comic Strip Art of Lyonel Feininger. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics, 2007.

    “Lyonel Feininger.” Oregon State University Cartoon Library & Museum Website. 6 Oct. 2010

    Markstein, Don. “Lyonel Feininger.” Don Markstein’s Toonopedia. 6 Oct. 2010

    “Alfred Vance Churchill Papers Regarding Lyonel Feininger, 1888-1944.” Smithsonian Archives of American Art. 6 Oct. 2010.

    “Lyonel Feininger on Artnet.” artnet. 6 Oct. 2010

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

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    About the author/student:

  • Andy Warner has a few online outposts. Here is his website;
  • here is a sampler of Andy’s comics work;
  • and here is Andy’s blog. Give them all a look-see.

  • Further reading & resources:

  • The Lyonel Feininger Digital Album is highly recommended, comprised of images from the San Francisco Academy of Comic Art Collection, which was acquired by The Ohio State University Cartoon Research Library from Bill Blackbeard in 1997. Click this link!

  • You can purchase your own copy of The Comic Strip Art of Lyonel Feininger: The Kin-Der-Kids and Wee Willie Winkie’s World at amazon.com; here’s the current availability.

  • Survey 1 Comic Strip Essays: Katie Moody on Winsor McCay’s “Dream of the Rarebit Fiend”

    Note: This is the first 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!

    Unless otherwise noted, any image 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. All illustrations in this particular post were added by the instructor.

    [Winsor McCay, Dream of the Rarebit Fiend: This March 8, 1905 installment of Rarebit Fiend inspired McCay’s 1921 animated film The Pet, the first-ever ‘giant monster attacking a city’ motion picture ever made. Thus, McCay and Dream of the Rarebit Fiend was arguably the wellspring for immortals like King Kong and Godzilla!]

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    Strip Analysis: Winsor McCay’s Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend
    by Katie Moody
    (CCS, Class of 2012)

    The first sixty strips of Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, as collected by Frederick A. Stokes in 1905 and recollected by Dover Publications in 1973 [cover pictured at left], are a hallucinatory window into the 1905 adult’s subconscious. As a pioneer of the nascent storytelling medium that modern readers would recognize as comics, Winsor McCay in particular represents a bridge between static, classic illustration and the more flexible, faster-paced nature of comics storytelling, a change itself enabled by advances in printing technology. His sophisticated themes, visual tropes, and other stylistic bids for sequential art’s legitimacy—all readily apparent in this mere seven percent of the strip’s run—remain relevant to comics enthusiasts today.

    Following at least ten earlier newspaper strips from McCay—with his more lighthearted Little Sammy Sneeze and Hungry Henrietta among them—Dream of the Rarebit Fiend stands out as a series of grand experiments. Its target audience is adult readers; the laws of reality and reason apply only to the final panel, the themes are more mature, the protagonist (almost always an adult) changes with each installment, and the entire blossoming field of psychoanalysis (Freud’s seminal* Interpretation of Dreams was published only five years prior) is McCay’s playground. Deep-rooted desires, primal fears, and social anxieties—the latter represented by dreamt inept encounters with peers who deliver, with straight matter-of-factness, what readers would immediately recognize as gleeful absurdities—frequently imperil the rarebit-fueled sleeper, and these fever-dream themes are so universal and relatable that many of the scenarios, metaphors, and visuals are still compelling over a century later.

    McCay’s accomplished Dream illustrations—with his characteristic strict perspective, lush detail, and trendy Art Nouveau influences in line weights—are obvious attempts to appeal to turn-of-the-century sensibilities. McCay was a woodcut illustrator first, and so upon switching professional gears to creating newspaper strips he must have been well aware of engaging in a popular art form—almost by definition ubiquitous, embraced by the public, and dismissed by critics. While he was pragmatic enough to find such profitable venues for his creative experiments as print and (especially with his animation milestone Gertie the Dinosaur) vaudeville, the work itself has a level of craft and technical integrity that is inarguable to modern eyes.

    Now that McCay’s later strip Little Nemo in Slumberland is universally recognized as an early comics masterpiece, and Dream of the Rarebit Fiend is an obvious precursor to Nemo in both subject and content, it is clear that McCay took the entire rarebit endeavor seriously in spite of all the wild experimentation. Even the angles and placement of the dialogue text are toyed with, as seen in strips forty-three to forty-five (on pages 45-47); A word balloon twists up along the wake of its tossed speaker [above, right], angry and indignant retorts swirl around the chaos of a physical altercation [left], and even the “OH OH OH OH” of a sideways-flattened commuter is placed on end [below]. The reading experience was McCay’s to toy with, manipulate, and consciously attempt to control; perhaps his testing and invention in the medium was further bolstered by the use of a pseudonym, “Silas” (employed for contract reasons).

    So why does this strip have such longevity and an immediacy that enchants new readers to this day?

    In spite of the 1905 collection’s claims to the contrary, Rarebit itself is unnecessary, as any other foodstuff could stand in for the arbitrary nightmare fuel if sufficiently spicy or exotic. In this strip, rarebit simply symbolizes excess and a source of regret; it is a seed that has a vivid and unsettling blossom of insight, though the shuddering dreamer rarely cares to give their experience further exploration. The modern equivalent of rarebit is another ubiquitous “cheese pie” that is often paired with beer—a combination still blamed for occasional agitating misadventures in dreamland.

    Since it’s not the specific source of the dreaming that has endured, it must be the dreaming itself. The few topical references of McCay’s time that made it into this collection’s strips—Roosevelt, the newly constructed Flatiron Building in New York, jabs at Mormons (whose church had only officially abandoned polygamy, the strip’s topic, in 1890)—are curious artifacts of its original time-specific context, but the episodic and continuity-free nature of each exuberant installment allow the strip to remain welcoming to new readers. The entertaining exaggerations and alarming scenarios, the fast and furious rush of strange plots and characters’ resonant emotional responses, and the operatic lushness of McCay’s panels all but beg further reading. Dream of the Rarebit Fiend is a page-turner if ever there was one, with more eventful developments in its eight to nine panels than in an entire issue of most modern “event” tie-in pamphlets.

    Given the fast-paced and effusive assault of content that McCay packed into each episode of Dream, the alacrity of this new medium must have been intoxicating to him. Far before Hollywood became the special-effects powerhouse that we (and Michael Bay) know so well today, Winsor McCay was using pen, paper, and gray matter to convey the most fantastical stories scenarios that he could conceive. Though he would later explore the logical conclusion between comics and film with his forays into early animation, his visual storytelling needed no more than the printed page itself in order to convey a compelling experience to his audience. That McCay’s chosen medium would still be struggling for serious legitimacy a century later, in spite of the mature themes and visual metaphors employed by him and countless other creators over the intervening years, is due to no fault of his own.

    Footnotes:
    * (Cough.)

    Source:
    Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend; McCay, Winsor. Dover Publications, Inc., New York, NY. 1973.

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

    [A page of Winsor McCay Rarebit Fiend original art, from the collection of Dr. Ulrich Merkl (see below).]
    ________________________________________

    About the author/student:

  • Katie Moody comes to CCS with professional credentials in the field, which you can see here;
  • at present, she does not offer an online blog or site for her work, but once she does, we’ll add that link.

    Further reading & resources:

    * CCS faculty member Stephen Bissette interviewed German art and comics scholar/archivist Ulrich Merkl about Dr. Merkl’s definitive Dream of the Rarebit Fiend collected edition, which we have in the Schulz Library rare books collection (donated by Bissette and Dr. Merkl).

  • Read “Dream of the Dream of the Rarebit Fiend: An Interview with Ulrich Merkl (with Three Addendums),” at the original Myrant blog site (archived at this link), July 23, 2007.
  • In his 2007 Myrant overview of the year’s best books, Bissette wrote:

    “Ulrich Merkl’s ravishing, absolutely definitive Dream of the Rarebit Fiend collection is jam-packed with much, much more than “just” the most complete collection of Winsor McCay’s seminal comic strip available anywhere on Earth. It’s also a comprehensive overview of McCay’s life, career and the context of the times in which one of our greatest cartoonists created this still-amazing strip, which essentially poured the foundation for the whole of 20th Century comics (and, as Merkl demonstrates, much of its art, cinema and visionary works).”

  • Joshua Glenn of The Boston Globe has archived this lively narrated online slideshow, based on Dr. Merkl’s book, demonstrating the influence of McCay’s work on many famous films (covered in further detail in Markl’s book, of course).
  • José-Luis Olivares on Mixed Media Comics

    José-Luis Olivares is a recent graduate from The Center for Cartoon Studies. Since I first encountered José’s comics, I’ve been impressed by his unique approach to picture-making.  José goes beyond the traditional pen and ink, incorporating a variety of mixed media on his comic pages (paint, food, junk, you name it).


    José lectures about mixed media comics, using a Kirby collage page as an example.

    One of José’s more ambitious mixed media comics, First Flower, was created for his senior thesis project.  It’s now on permanent display in the Schulz Library, and on José’s website.  I asked José about First Flower, and his other mixed media comics.  Below you’ll find his detailed and insightful responses.

     

    What motivated you to create mixed media comics?

     I’ve always enjoyed drawing and playing with different materials. I feel more comfortable holding a graphite stick than using a nib. I like being messy and freeing myself up when I draw. At CCS, too, I loved learning about the history of cartooning, and became inspired by all sorts of visual arts out there, like fine art, children’s books, and comics.

     

    Does the computer play a role in your process – or is your method more hands on?

     For First Flower, especially, I enjoyed dabbling in the digital dark arts, but I like to jump back and forth and sometimes do things the old-fashioned way. Some of my mini-comics are made entirely computer-free. The third installment of my personal anthology, Polite Fiction, was made using a copy machine, a pile of sketchbook pages, and markers.  

     

    What are some materials you’ve used in your collage comics?  Where do you find these materials?

     Eggs, lube, chalk, transparencies, grapes, receipts, glitter paint, sparkly stickers, highlighters, a stick… I like using different materials for each project. Right now I’ve got a basic brushpen-and-graphite-stick combo going on, with added digital tomfoolery. Sometimes people give me materials, like the stick, but I usually just buy them at grocery stores, art stores, or kid’s stores. I like doodling with materials meant for teenage girls, cavemen, or office workers.
    Ninja Turtle Gaughin (drawn with a stick).

     

    What is the most unusual item you’ve integrated into your mixed media artwork?

     In high school, I made giant Picasso recreations out of spray-painted beans.

     

    Could you walk us through some of your process?  For example, how did you go about creating page one of First Flower? In the comic there are two narratives occurring, one in color with more digital techniques, and the other penciled in grayscale. I started First Flower with a series of messy versions of thumbnails and then kept on building up layers until it was fleshed out, combining many hand-drawn elements in Photoshop. For example, the background of page one was drawn on Bristol paper using colored markers and then later digitally manipulated. The characters were created by scanning in cut-out shapes and textures.

     

    What mixed media artists have inspired you?

     I’m inspired by tons of artists and spend most of my time online looking for inspiration. Eric Carle, Virginia Lee Burton, Richard McGuire, Keith Haring, Frans Masereel, Steve Bissette, Souther Salazar, Mo Willems, William Steig…I could go on forever! I get big new art crushes on a daily basis. My current crush is Remy Charlip.

     

    Could you tell us about the children’s book you are working on?  How are you using mixed media to illustrate this story?

     I’ve been working on an adaption of the classic Spanish-language nursery rhyme, Sana, Sana, Colita de Rana, that my mom would sing to me as a kid. The book is a simple story about a tadpole who injures his tail and learns that it takes time for the wound to heal.  After sketching out the pages on the computer, I paint with watercolors, draw with graphite, and create digital patterns, then assemble everything in Photoshop. I’m still working on the final look of the book, but I’m having a blast experimenting with styles and techniques.

    Thanks, José.  Editors, publisher, take note!  I think Sana, Sana, Colita de Rana will be a big hit.

    – Robyn Chapman

    Survey of the Drawn Story I essays…

    Hello all, Stephen Bissette here. I’ve been part of CCS since its initial summer classes (2005) and pioneer year (2005-2006), and since then I’ve been teaching and co-teaching (with Robyn Chapman) our comics history course, Survey of the Drawn Story. Initially, Survey was a single-semester course; it’s now a two semester course, which allows for far greater depth and expanse of coverage.

    As of our Spring 2010 semester, my former co-instructor Robyn Chapman began the practice of posting select essays from our students concerning aspects of comics history. I’m carrying on that “tradition” (we’ll make it one yet!) starting tomorrow here at the Schulz Library blog, offering a selection of essays—some in written form, some in comics form—from this fall’s Survey of the Drawn Story I class.

    This first batch of essays focus exclusively on various comic strips of the 20th Century. I’ll be posting them in roughly chronological order according to when their subject matter was either launched or in its heyday. I hope you’ll enjoy these essays, some of which will be posted complete, some of which I’ll offer excerpts from (to avoid repetition, to eliminate factual errors, or to focus on the meat of a given paper).

    Please take them in the context in which they were written and/or drawn: these were deadline assignments, reflecting just one of the many projects the students are juggling in a given period of time here at CCS. There’s much good work and solid writing and cartooning here, but this isn’t what they would create for publication or for a more professional venue, given proper research time and a paying venue.

    Nevertheless, all these essays provide engaging, enlightening, and entertaining reading, and we hope you’ll find something of interest here in the coming days…

    – Stephen R. Bissette, Mountains of Madness, VT

    Boody Call!

    Comics archivist, scholar, fan, collector and all-around knowledgable maniac Craig Yoe has been releasing a tsunami of delightful books over the past year or so, and among my favorites is the recent Boody: The Bizarre Comics of Boody Rogers (2009, Fantagraphics), providing a handsome sampler of curious comics by Gordon G. “Boody” Rogers (1904–1996).

    My own introduction to Boody Rogers came, not via his comics (oddly enough), but via his autobiography. I was always intrigued by a hand-lettered ad that repeatedly appeared in The Comics Buyer’s Guide weekly back in the 1980s, and I saw a friend’s copy of the book Boody was self-distributing, Homeless Bound (1984, Pioneer Book Publishers). It didn’t do any good to beg or whine: by that time, the ads were no longer in the CBG. I tracked down my copy years later during a book sale at a library during a visit to Texas, and it’s had a treasured spot on my personal library shelf ever since.

    Rogers opened his illustrated autobiography with a memorable curtain-raiser:

    “Mr. Marshlo was beyond a doubt the nastiest, dirtiest, filthiest bastard I had ever had the displeasure to see! He owned a cotton farm near Childress, a small West Texas town which I claim as home base. The last water Mr. Marshlo ever had on his head must have been when he was christened, but it had long since disappeared! He wore a shaggy beard that bore evidence of this last several meals. It usually had coffee stains, dried gravy, eggs, butter, and sometimes a few beans tangled in it. Just looking at him would make a strong man throw up! He was a rag-tailed, holy mess!”

    And so it began… Homeless Bound, and my romance with Boody Rogers‘s work. There wasn’t much about Boody‘s cartooning career in the book—an anecdote here, and a digression there—but it sure was an entertaining read, and one came away feeling like you’d spent a week or two shooting the breeze with Boody himself. His personality came through in spades, and the man was a charmer and a born storyteller.

    Thereafter, I kept my eyes peeled at every book nook and yard sale I stumbled through. I lucked into gold once, and only once, more: a pretty good condition copy of a regional Texan paperback Rogers had illustrated, Wichita Falls: A Lady with a Past (1978, Western Christian Foundation, Inc.). There wasn’t much Boody in the book, but what there was I savored, and Glenn Shelton‘s text was brimming with enough lurid historical lore to prompt a revisit or two over the years.

    It was tough to find any comics with Rogers‘s work. It was tucked away in the fat, 64-page potpourris of titles like Big Shot and solo (I think) Rogers titles like Babe, Dudley (“The Teen-Age Sensation!”) and Sparky Watts, all pricey 1948-1950 Pre-Code oddities that seemed scarcer than chicken teeth and finer than fur on a frog, judging by their prices (when they could be found at all).

    What I could scrounge up was always inventive, imaginative and antic, a weird fusion of hillbillies, monsters, babes, bodacious rednecks, and completely insane (and often quite protracted) gags, brimming with vivid action. Rogers was a natural, and his cartooning still entertains and astonishing (at times with its sheer audacity). The influences are self-evident—Fontaine Fox‘s Toonerville FolksAl Capp‘s Li’l Abner and Bill Holman‘s Smoky Stover prominent among those, though I also detect (go ahead, call me crazy) a whiff of Harry G. Peter (Wonder Woman) at times—but it’s distinctively Boody‘s own universe we’re wheeling through, with its own look, flavor, and sense of style.

    The few I stumbled upon at comics cons over the years were either too expensive or missing pages (centerspreads were frequent casualties, instantly dropping four full pages of story out of the center of a vintage comic, but rendering it affordable if you brought it to the dealer’s attention), but I found a few and fell in love with his ramshackle but surprisingly cohesive fantasies. One dealer in particular tempted me more than once with a rare late 1940s comic featuring a Boody Rogers “Sparky Watts” story in which Sparky and his chrome-domed pal Slap Happy enter a microscopic realm populated with micro-monsters worthy of Ted Geisel, including a phallic cyclopean saurian-sorta critter with ears on his hips. I could never afford the damned comic, but I’m thankful to read it at last in Boody—it’s the second story in Yoe‘s collection.

    There’s fourteen stories in all in this anthology, beautifully scanned, restored, and reproduced in all their four-color glory. You’ll meet Babe, “The Amazon of the Ozarks” (the strip with the biggest debt to Li’l Abner, one of a number of “hillbilly” comics Capp inspired), Sparky Watts and Slap Happy, Max Von Glamor, Mrs. Two-Ton Gooseflesh, Hattie and Bonny Pinfeathers, Cousin Fanny Hawgfat, Dudley (“The Prince of Prance!”), Jasper Fudd, and a wild menagerie of mutants, monsters and microbes (including the two-part Sparky Watts tale I was tantalized with over two decades ago, and another in the “Kingdom of the Talking Bugs”). There’s a lot of fun to be had in these pages.

    My sole complaint, really, is the lack of any attribution for the stories themselves. As with many of the recent Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly collections, the lack of any archival source information is frustrating, an oversight that ill serves serious comics scholars, researchers (and teachers like me). C’mon, let us know where and when these gems were originally published!

    Boody properly showcases a sizeable enough collection of complete comics stories by the wildman inkslinger from Texas, finally elevating Rogers into the pantheon he’s always been part of—if only enough folks had been able to access his work. At last, they can!

    So, make room, Milt Gross, Basil Wolverton, John Stanley and the rest of you all-ages-appropriate comics humorists/fantasists of yore: Boody is here at last, and he’s stompin’ his way into the hearts of a new generation!

    SR Bissette, Mountains of Madness, VT

    Facebook 2010 Assignment

    No, this is not a retelling of the GREAT and POWERFUL social networking portal known as Facebook but rather a humble project the new Center for Cartoon Studies students take on. Every fall, while they are still getting eight hours of sleep, the students must write a bio and draw a self-portrait which is then turned into a two-color screen print. These pages are then bound together to create a cartoonist yearbook! (Cover above: Katie Moody, Below: Mia Onorato)

    Screen printing is a challenge for many reasons, some of the students come to the school with little fine art experience and many are not used to the meticulous, almost unforgiving nature of screen printing. (Below: Jan Burger)

    Some students, like Andy Warner, choose to write their bios out (which is still very graphic) and others like 2010 Fellow, Dave Libens, made a comic for his bio.

    And Nate Wootters even created a great page spread by designing his screen print and bio to interact with each other.

    The end result is an absolutely beautiful book made out of sweat, determination and wee bit of fear. You can download the entire 2010 Facebook here and enjoy all the tremendous talent of the newest set of CCS cartoonists.

    -Jen Vaughn