Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Milton Caniff, Part 1

In Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee (Henry Holt and Co., 2006), Charles J. Shields takes fewer than a handful of paragraphs to discuss rumors Truman Capote wrote part or all of Pultizer Prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird. (He didn’t, apparently.)

But in Meanwhile …: A Biography of Milton Caniff, Robert C. Harvey consumes an entire 10-page appendix to ruminate on “How (Noel) Sickles Inspired Caniff But Didn’t Draw for Him.” Ten pages.

No question, at 952 pages in total, Meanwhile … is a doorstop of a biography, loaded with illustrations from Terry and the Pirates, Steve Canyon and other Caniff works, samples from other cartoonists, explanations of those illustrations and more post cards and letters sent to and from Caniff than you can image. Plus insights and recollections from the man himself.

Heavy stuff.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Stan Lee

In a glossary at the back of his It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken, Seth defines Marvel Comics this way:

“Back in the 1960s it was a wonderfully fun line of comics books — especially the Kirby and Ditko stuff. Now, it’s a hateful media conglomerate that popularizes bad drawing.”

By “hateful” I’m not sure if Seth specifically means the big-budget movies, the “bad drawing” or how Marvel has treated illustrators and creators — or all of the above. But to get some detail on the years-long battle involving Marvel, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Jim Shooter and lots of lawyers over the rights to ideas, characters and art work, take a look at Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book.

Authors Jordan Raphael and Tom Spurgeon try to be even-handed and give all sides equal space to air their recollections of who promised what to whom when. Chapter 19, “Step Right Up!,” details Kirby’s struggle to reclaim the 8,000 pages of art he did for Marvel and what Lee did — or did not do — to help his former colleague.

As a bonus, the rarely heard-from Steve Ditko pops up as a Greek chorus, pretty much to keep everyone else more or less honest. Which isn’t easy as, all things considered, it wasn’t pretty.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Siegel and Shuster’s Funnyman

When last we saw our heroes, Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster of Cleveland, Ohio, were still fuming as they came to realize how much they’d lost by signing away the rights, for a relative pittance, to their creation who could leap tall buildings with a single bound.

Hoping to catch lightning in a bottle a second time — and on this occasion hold onto it — illustrator Shuster, a fan of Danny Kaye, came up with the idea of Funnyman, a character who looked very much like the movie comedian and was, well, funny. Siegel, returning from service in World War II, recast Funnyman as a crime fighter. And the two were off again in hopes of fame and comics glory.

Thomas Andrae and Mel Gordon tell the tale of Funnyman’s short life, and include samples of the comic book and the newspaper strips that appeared from 1948 to 1949, in Siegel and Shuster’s Funnyman: The First Jewish Superhero, From the Creators of Superman. The book, published in paperback just this past month, also dwells on the character’s origins — as well as that of Krypton’s most famous son — in Jewish culture and humor, as the book’s subtitle suggests.

As for the character himself and the comics world he inhabited, the humor is dated — oversized clown shoes with springs, baggy polka-dot pants, goofy gadgets, ludicrous villains and countless prat falls.

That said, based on the evidence of this book there’s no denying Funnyman, for all its shtick, was silly and entertaining. “Aw,” its hero would reply if he were still around, “it was nuttin’.”

Saturday, August 14, 2010

New ‘Crumb’ From Criterion

Crumb, the 1995 documentary on the genius that is Robert Crumb and his odd family, has been released on DVD and Blu-ray by the always classy Criterion Collection.

It features a new commentary track by director Terry Zwigoff, a booklet and deleted scenes.

The movie talks about Crumb’s working style and his influences. It also spends time on his siblings, one of whom devoted his days to moving a long string through his digestive system.

Umm …. Yeah, that’s a hard image to clear.

But, still, the documentary as a whole is fascinating, one every aspiring cartoonist and documentary maker should see. (There even was a debate at the time over whether Zwigoff, who later directed Ghost World, based on Daniel Clowes’s graphic novel, should have cut the bit where his camera person stumbled and almost fell off a roof, if she hadn’t been grabbed by the cartoonist himself.)

‘Cathy’ to Cease

I once saw Cathy Guisewite on a panel in Columbus at one of Ohio State University’s early Festivals of Cartoon Art, oh, back in the 1980s. She was on stage with Tom Batiuk, creator of Funky Winkerbean; Irwin Hasen, whose name topped the Dondi newspaper strip; and Fred Lasswell, whose name ran with the Snuffy Smith strip.

One highlight of the discussion came after an audience member asked how much time was required to produce a daily and Sunday strip. Hasen and Lasswell, who confessed to using an unspecified number of assistants, claimed they only spent a couple hours a day, at most.

Guisewite, pop-eyed and open-mouthed, looked at the audience in comic disbelief. She then banged her forehead repeatedly on the table, much to the amusement of all in attendance … except maybe for Hasen and Lasswell.

She and Batiuk, who each produced their strips solo in those days (and maybe still do), both said their work consumed every waking moment.

The distinction between the old and new guard couldn’t have been clearer.

Guisewite, now 60, has announced she’ll stop her strip, Cathy, Oct. 3 — she wants to spend more time with her family, she said. While over time Cathy has become formulaic — panel 1: statement; panel 2: build on statement; panel 3: increase absurdity of statement; panel 4: Cathy makes a wry observation … or “Aack!” — in its late-1970s heyday it broke ground. The strip addressed everyday silliness of office work and the single life for women. Greeting cards followed.

And Cathy — the cartoon character and the cartoonist — could be very funny.

Monday, August 9, 2010

‘9 Chickweed Lane’ Ends WWII Tale?

It appears Brooke McEldowney might be coming to conclusion of his eight-month-long storyline in 9 Chickweed Lane of grandmother Edna’s flashback about her days as a USO singer and spy during World War II.

Or maybe he’s just getting his second wind. After all, the tale ends — if this is the end — with Edna confessing to her daughter, Juliette, that Austrian opera singer Peter Kiesl, whom she met when he was a prisoner of war in England, is Juliette’s father — not Edna’s husband, American war hero (and her handler as a spy) Bill O’Malley.

Surely there’ll need to be long, agonizing talks with granddaughter Edda and just about everyone else in the strip. Not one of these characters seems to be able to keep a secret.

But it was an intriguing story and never flagged. Bravo.

Read my post on the start, more or less, of this storyline here.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

2010 Eisner Awards

Winners of 2010 Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards of note — well, to me, at least, and readers of this blog — presented at this year’s Comic-Con in San Diego include:

Best Adaptation from Another Work:
Richard Stark's Parker: The Hunter, adapted by Darwyn Cooke (IDW)

Best Comics-Related Book:
The Art of Harvey Kurtzman: The Mad Genius of Comics, by Denis Kitchen and Paul Buhle (Abrams ComicArts)

• And Vault of Midnight comic book store — I’ve followed it in its various locations around Ann Arbor, Michigan, over the years, and I stop in every time I’m in town — won the Will Eisner Spirit of Comics Retailer Award.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Hunter

Darwyn Cooke, who revived Will Eisner’s The Spirit a few years back, perfectly captures the tone of early 1960s Camelot, with its cocktails and cigarettes, hour-glass-shaped willing women and Space Age hotel exteriors — at least, that world of fictional tough-guy detectives — in his adaptation of crime writer Donald E. Westlake’s The Hunter.

In smoky, moody blues and deep blacks, the protagonist Parker, eyebrows perpetually cocked, pounds the urban pavement as well as his urbane enemies, leaving gorgeous “dames” panting after him — assuming they’re still breathing at all when he leaves them. Listen and you can hear the Miles Davis soundtrack.

The story certainly isn’t populated with Salvation Army types. But these characters grab us (hopefully not by the throat) and stick with us.

“I just got rid of the woman with the bag. I haven’t killed any of these jokers yet, but the next one I will. And if the money doesn’t show, you’re next.” Krak! Bam! Hunf!