Monday, November 23, 2009

Captain Easy Returns

It seemed inevitable someone would get around to republishing Roy Crane’s Captain Easy strips from the 1930s, and Fantagraphics will begin doing so, over six volumes, come January.

In its winter catalog, Fantagraphics calls Captain Easy “arguably the comics page’s first and all-time greatest adventure strip.” We can debate the “greatest” part, but as for the “first,” Easy himself debuted in 1929 as a sidekick in the already popular Wash Tubbs. G. Washington Tubbs II, who started out in 1924, has a much better claim to being the “first.”

The five-foot-something Tubbs, drawn in a whimsical cartoon-like style, traveled the world, getting caught up with everything from European revolutions and Mexican bandits to medicine shows (“Yo ho! Yo ho! Gather ’round and see the marvelous feats of magic …!”) and murderous villains (“Whack! Bam!”). It was while he was in the kingdom of Kandelabra that Tubbs rescued Easy from imprisonment in its dungeons by handing him a crowbar.

“American, aren’t you?” Tubbs asks.

“Well, yes and no,” Easy replies, with a Southern-gentleman’s drawl. “Started out that way. Hang my hat on any old flagpole now. Like a flea, I reckon ….”

Easy, with his mysterious past, most likely was the “first” solider-of-fortune in what was to become a long line of foot-loose adventurers. But, as Ron Goulart points out in his The Adventurous Decade, Easy’s name at first was something else. As Crane told Goulart, the cartoonist had another moniker in mind, but then he forgot it when it came time to name his character. It wasn’t until later he recalled he wanted to call him Early. Maybe.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Zippy on Vacation

Lots of illustrators carry around a sketch pad, even on vacation. Bill Griffith, creator of the comic strip Zippy the Pinhead, has for years, apparently, and by chance I happened to receive a copy of his “Get Me a Table Without Flies, Harry.” It’s a collection of his sketches of people caught unawares (often in ill-fitting swim suits), food (“Here today, gone tamale”) and places (such as Pepto-Bismoloya Beach), while in locales from Paris, Dublin, Naples, Amsterdam and Puerto Vallarta to less exotic spots that include Salinas, Dallas and Lake Tahoe.

Knowing the wonderfully cranky Zippy state of mind helps with the inside jokes — a youngster paddling in a Calistoga, California, pool yelling “Yow!!” is deemed “a kid after my own heart.” And polka dots — the primary design on Zippy’s muu-muu — always draw praise.

But really, no insider knowledge is necessary to enjoy the art of this book. The drawings — several sketch-book-sheets-worth to a page and drawn with a customized Pelikan 120 — come captioned with allegedly true-life dialog. “Would you like rice or chips with th’ sizzling shrimp?” in a Chinese restaurant in Cork, Ireland. As Griffith kisses the Blarney Stone, another man urges, “Don’t look down, lad, don’t look down.” And from one of a trio of men lazing poolside: “What are you, 60? 61? Guys our age are perfect for women her age. What is she — 36? They’re lucky to get us.”

And every so often someone — often his wife, Diane — asks, “Are you drawing me?”

Charming, absurdist stuff. As one middle-aged guy in Victoria says, “Ha, ha, ha, ha. How about those East German jails!”

Thursday, November 12, 2009


I’m reminded of that Albert Einstein quote that I think is often misapplied: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Ad agencies tout it as a corporate motto for being clever. But while it’s true imagination can be the spark that generates great ideas, without knowledge you’re just playing with soggy matches.

In sequential art, we can see a direct line of informed artists building upon the work of their predecessors, to which they blend in their own imagination. See what I mean:
Hugo Pratt (Corto Maltese is his internationally known protagonist) acknowledged his debt to comic-strip predecessors Noel Sickles (Scorchy Smith) and Milton Caniff (Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon). As Jaime Hernandez moved from very detailed illustrations to more impressionistic work in Love & Rockets, his heavy inks began to resemble Pratt’s — which of course in turn evoked the chiaroscuro of Caniff. And when Jessica Abel (La Perdida) visited Kalamazoo, Michigan, last week, she cited Hernandez as an early inspiration for her work.

So we can draw a link from Sickles and Caniff (starting in the 1930s) through Pratt (1970s to 1990s) to Hernandez (1980s up to today) to Abel (2000 and still going), to name just a few practitioners.

Another would be Frank Miller. (Now there’s a man who loves chiaroscuro — look at Sin City.) In his introduction to The Dark Knight Returns (1986), Miller writes that the notion to make his version of Robin a girl came from Love & Rockets.

And as readers of that dark, grim series also will recall, political and military tension mounts between the United States and the Soviet Union over the island of Corto Maltese ….

Monday, November 9, 2009

Jessica Abel in Kalamazoo, Part 2

“You have to grow up reading comics to want to make comics,” Jessica Abel told the audience last Wednesday, Nov. 04, at the Kalamazoo (Michigan) Public Library. And because girls historically didn’t read comics, there haven’t been very many women writing or drawing comics.

It used to be there were one in 300 women in the comics industry, Abel said in an offhand estimate. That had grown to about one in 30 when she started some 20 years ago. Abel guessed that figure today to be about one in three.

(I wonder if Abel has ever had this conversation with Amelia Rules creator Jimmy Gownley, who’s promoted comics for younger children, especially for girls ….)

Abel noted manga as “huge” for her students when she starting teaching comics at New York’s School of Visual Arts in the early ’00s. “It’s influence is now less pervasive,” she said, with what appeared to be a small sigh of gratitude.

She cited Jaime Hernandez’s Maggie and Hopey stories in Love & Rockets as a primary inspiration for her work. You can see a little Maggie and Hopey in Abel’s own major graphic novel, La Perdida — a character starts out “with a chip on her shoulder. Then something happens,” she said.

Abel confided she’s doing more writing than drawing these days. She is currently working on scripts for a character called Trish Trash, a roller-derby girl on Mars, among other projects, including a novel.

You can see my review of La Perdida posted Sept. 06, 2009, and of Hernandez’s Locas: The Maggie and Hopey Stories posted Oct. 14, 2009.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Jessica Abel in Kalamazoo, Part 1

Jessica Abel, who teaches comics at New York’s School of Visual Arts, believes comics shouldn’t be considered a visual art. It’s narrative art, she contends, and should be thought of — and taught — in the same category as film studies.

That whole idea of narrative was the key to her presentation Wednesday evening at the Kalamazoo (Michigan) Public Library, during which she critiqued, sometimes harshly, her own early work.

“When I started, I didn’t know what I was doing,” she told the audience (many of whom gripped sketch pads during the presentation). Her big problem was not the drawing, but that she didn’t know how to tell a story. The question of “What happens next” stumped her, she claimed.

It was while she was doing mini-comic Artbabe that a fellow cartoonist suggested to her that Archie comics, of all things, contained perfectly distilled stories. So Abel, a former writing major, began the first of several analyses of good story-telling. With Archie, it’s this basic: 1 Archie wants Veronica. 2 He meets an obstacle. 3 He finds a solution. 4 There are consequences. 5. There’s the concluding situation.

Abel’s quest for the perfect narrative evolved, through what she deemed the Three-Act Story Structure (set-up, conflict, resolution), to a more complex Narrative Arc, which she worked out while she wrote and drew La Perdida — a spark sets the protagonist’s life out of balance; the protagonist tries to settle the problem or question; moving on to a climax, in which that problem or question is definitely answered … or not answered.

Sometimes that “answer” is an internal epiphany, for the character or for the reader, Abel said.

She and her husband, Matt Madden, are working on a new version of their very helpful Drawing Words & Writing Pictures. (It helped me — I’d never heard of an Ames Lettering Guide before.)

See my review of La Perdida posted Sept. 06, 2009.