Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Mammoth Book of Best Crime Comics

In one panel, Secret Agent X-9 holds a gun in his left hand, aiming out it of frame. In the very next panel, the gun is now in his steely right hand and his left hand is extended, like a tightrope walker, to balance the picture.

As with many sequences in this great 1934 newspaper comic strip, this makes no sense visually. But that’s OK because it all looks great.

Every panel, in fact, of the dapper X-9, the sultry Grace Powers, the feckless Evelyn or even the evil master criminal the Top looks as if plucked from an old posed, black-and-white movie poster. Even when X-9 leaps through a window, he looks pretty darned elegant.

No surprise as the art is by Alex Raymond, the painterly genius behind Flash Gordon and Rip Kirby. And the slam-bam, non-stop action plot? By Dashiell Hammett, creator of The Thin Man and The Continental Op. Speaking of dashing and elegant.

I was delighted to find this and a wealth of other incredibly cool stories in The Mammoth Book of Best Crime Comics, edited by Paul Gravett.

I tend to avoid collections, figuring that for the few dynamic storylines or splendid images the book will be over-packed with contrivances and weak drawing.

So imagine my surprise to find in this one book not only Hammett and Raymond’s tremendous Secret Agent X-9, but also work by one of my favorite cartoonist storytellers, Jacques Tardi, illustrating a story by his wife, Dominique Grange.

If that weren’t enough, this fat, 2008 book also features noir-ish work by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, Alan Moore, Charles Burns (starring his cigarette-smoking, overweight wrestler-detective El Borbah), Neil Gaiman, Jodi Bernet, Mickey Spillane (remember paperback detective Mike Hammer?), Alex Toth, Ed McBain, Max Allen Collins and Terry Beatty’s Ms. Tree, and Bernie Krigstein, before his EC Comics’s art.

And on top of that, Will Eisner’s The Spirit makes an appearance.

Mix in with this impressive bunch a good number of cartoonists and writers I’d not seen before but wished I had.

A “mammoth” book it is.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Nursery Rhyme Comics

First Second, an imprint of Roaring Brook Press, will release this coming October Nursery Rhyme Comics: 50 Timeless Rhymes From 50 Celebrated Cartoonists.

The value in this book for adults interested in sequential art can be found in the contributors. They include, among others, Tony Millionaire, Roz Chast, both Jaime and Gilberto Hernandez, Gahan Wilson, Richard Thompson and Craig Thompson, Jules Feiffer, Gene Luen Yang and even Hellboy creator Mike Mignola.

The cartoonists stuck to the oft-recited texts, for the most part, but their images swing to some delightful interpretations. Stephanie Vue’s “Hickory, Dickory, Dock” features a charmingly expressive mouse. Cyril Pedrosa’s lively “This Little Piggy” — predominantly pink and wiggly — looks as if it escaped from late-night MTV, except in a good way.

The drawback — as you might expect in a book that gathers a whopping 50 artists and from across a broad spectrum of genres — is that some of the entries are inspired, fun and mad, while some, well, aren’t.

But the real test for Nursery Rhyme Comics will come when I return the copy I read to the Accent editor at the newspaper where I work. She’ll read the comics to her young daughter.

Now that will be the true verdict.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Chicago Tribune cartoonists

I want to be these guys — sit around in three-piece suits, smoking cigars and even on occasion wearing a fedora, while drawing famous cartoons.

Take a look at this 1931 documentary of Chicago Tribune cartoonists as they draw Little Orphan Annie, Moon Mullins,The Gumps and more. Very cool stuff.

Thanks to the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists for featuring this in its latest members publication.

Action Agents in Exciting Adventures

A couple posts back I proposed a list of the 10 best newspaper comic strips. But I only came up with nine.

I asked you what you thought. Among the suggestions to come in have been Thimble Theater/Popeye, The Gumps, For Better or for Worse and Wash Tubbs/Captain Easy.

But two of you — two — recommended a strip of which I’d never heard. So I did some research.

At first called Action Agents in Exciting Adventures and, later, just Action Agents, the adventure strip started in 1931, picked up steam and popularity just before WW II, then began to wane, limping to an obscure demise in the early 1950s.

The breathless tales centered on Carter Remo and Captain Kit Chen, who worked for … well, I’m not sure who they worked for. The OSS? The Pinkertons? The good guys, clearly.

In the samples I saw, it’s never stated — it’s as if the artist didn’t want to get bogged down with anything that might slow the narrative, such as explanation and sense.

They zipped around the globe, rescuing kidnapped heiresses, capturing miscreants who planned to blow up bridges, power plants and, on two separate occasions, a museum. A museum after hours. Who knows why.

Remo, with his pencil-thin mustache, was the more handsome and intended as the lead. Chen — get it, “Kit Chen”? — was a bit slower in the foot race, but he’s the hero who often figured out the evil-doers’ master plans.

The look was not unlike Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy — not exactly in the “big-foot” style, but certainly not with the grace of Prince Valiant.

For its first 13 years, Action Agents was written and drawn by Webb F.C. Klein, the strip’s creator, as best as I can figure. But after 1944, it passed through several hands, with ever-worsening artistic results — Todd “Doc” B. Dunstead, 1944 to 1946; Earle Parkerson, 1947-1948; then Lester “Ike” Pennington, 1948 to 1953.

Pennington’s drawings in particular were especially dreadful. Poor Remo and Chen.

Who knows — maybe Fantagraphics Books or Drawn & Quarterly will reprint some of the Action Agents strips, with crisp repackaging by Chris Ware or Seth. Or maybe not.

Mickey Mouse: Race to Death Valley

The protagonist in Fantagraphics Books new Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse: Race to Death Valley isn’t your father’s Mickey Mouse. It’s your grandfather’s.

This early newspaper strips, beginning in 1930, by Floyd Gottfredson — what, you thought Disney drew these? — show an character who seeks out adventure, gets in fights, jumps from speeding trains, steals a car and chases after bad guys out west.

This little Mickey has an inflated view of his own abilities — “Daniel in the lion’s den was a coward compared to me” is a typical proclamation, usually just before his great idea goes wackily wrong.

More amazing, with these strips from 1930, Mickey predates the debut of Terry and the Pirates, usually considered the granddaddy of adventure strips.

And as written and drawn by Gottfredson, this mouse is all action. When excited, his arms go straight up over his head, his big-footed feet shoot forward at 45 degrees and his tail goes heavenward.

Gottfredson’s drawings are just about perfect. Minnie, described as “a fickle, frivolous flapper,” dances and Mickey takes prat falls. The artist could capture both the excitement — marvel at that long, long train as it snakes through the mountains, down into Death Valley — and the wit — in the next day’s installment a goat foolishly beams with pride at having just ingested Minnie’s treasure map.

Reading these great strips, you can almost block out that insipid squeaky voice now forever associated with the Mouses, and the sight of some mute college student in an odd costume and a giant, wobbly polystyrene head loitering around amusement park midways.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The 10 Greatest Comic Strips?

The National Cartoonists Society awards last week were like so many other big awards. Some made perfect sense — Richard Thompson’s accolade for Cul de Sac, for example — while others, such for Dustin, make you think, What? That? Seriously?

Which led me to this list below. What have been the greatest newspaper comic strips?
“Greatest” as opposed to “favorite.” Best should imply some long-lasting appeal, something groundbreaking.

And with a touch a genius and maybe a little madness, too.

I admit even this list has some strips that were politically and socially reprehensible — you can admire the art even if you don’t want to live next door to the artist

Also, you’ll notice these are all American newspaper strips. The reasons are, a.) that’s pretty much what I’ve seen enough of to be able to judge intelligently, and b.) comic strips came into their own as an American art form, so it seems only fair.

So, in the order in which they occurred to me, here’s my initial stab at the 10 greatest newspaper comic strips. I tried not to make this into a listing of the obvious. But maybe that’s what I got, anyway, because, well, those are the best.

What do you think? Leave me a comment, email me at slippedcomic at gmail or Twitter @MichaelChevy1.

1. Terry and the Pirates

2. Little Orphan Annie

3. Dick Tracy

4. Calvin and Hobbes

5. Peanuts

6. Gasoline Alley

7. Mutts

8. Pogo

9. Krazy Kat

10. … well, hmmm. Should this last spot be for Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (weak cartooning if clever ideas)? Tarzan (great art, but kind of weird)? Flash Gordon (ditto, and this did come after Buck Rogers)? Nancy (appreciated by cartoon purists but really not ever very funny)?

Monday, May 30, 2011

Ziggy at 40

Set for release next week, on June 7, the hardbound 40th anniversary collection of Ziggy cartoons is a good-looking book. Block-like and solid, with each page displaying a single-panel cartoon; the few strips cover two-page spreads.

The book even comes with an outside band, similar to those on books by cerebral cartoonists such as Seth and Chris Ware.

A copy arrived unsolicited at the newspaper where I work. And as I looked through the cartoons — organized by decade — I recalled how I never really thought Ziggy was particularly funny.

Just a few examples, chosen at random: Ziggy, bald in the longtime tradition of comic strip characters dating back to the Yellow Kid and Henry, sits before his computer. A large calendar tell us it’s Jan. 1, 2001. The monitor intones: “Good morning, Dave …”

The joke, see, is the scary HAL computer that said “Good morning, Dave” was in the movie, 2001. Get it?

In another, Ziggy says to a doctor that “I hate to tell you this, but I’ve found three typos in your diploma!!”

Is the point that the doctor might be a quack? There’s nothing sinister in the physician’s appearance, beyond that he looks pretty bored. And who can blame him for that.

Ziggy started life, if I recall correctly, as a greeting-card character. He continues to this day to be drawn by the son of his creator, Tom Wilson.

And therein lies his charm, I guess … and he must hold an attraction, as the cartoon is carried by 500 daily and Sunday newspapers, according to the book’s accompanying publicity.

Ziggy’s jokes are simple and require little to no energy on the reader’s part. Sort of a round Bazooka Joe, without the gum.

For some cartoon readers, there’s a warm spot for that in their day.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Adrian Tomine Art for Earthquake Relief

Tomorrow at high noon the sale begins for the limited edition — 50 only — prints by Adrian Tomine, author of Shortcomings and Scenes From an Impending Marriage.

The price will $250 in the United States, $260 in Canada. All proceeds will be donated to the Japan Society’s Earthquake Relief Fund.

The drawings were created as cover illustrations for the DVD release of the Yasujiro Ozu films The Only Son and There Was a Father. The images are melancholic and truly elegant.

“In addition to the two prints,” noted a statement released yesterday by Drawn & Quarterly, “all orders will include a small original sketch by Adrian Tomine, personalized to the name of the purchaser.”

You can find out more here.

Saturday, April 23, 2011


Greg Rucka has not always been well-served by his illustrators. During the long run of his great comic books series Queen & Country, some of the artists did excellent, powerful work. Others weren’t so successful.

In fact, I recall in the first issue of Queen & Country I picked up (a Free Comic Book Day special), I had no idea the main character was supposed to be a woman until I noticed, some pages in, that her name was Tara.

Rucka is an exciting, nuanced writer. (The paperback edition of third Q&C novel, The Last Run, will be released this coming Tuesday.) And he proves it again with the hardbound collection of the Eisner Award-nominated Stumptown, just out earlier this month.

Stumptown is Portland, Oregon. The main character is a rush-addicted, low-rent private eye named Dex — short for Dexedrine, so imagine what sort of childhood she had — Parios, who takes her knocks from all sorts of down-and-outers. She’s plies her trade in The Rockford Files world, as Matt Fraction (what’s with the names?) points out in his introduction.

Art is by Matthew Southworth, who’s done work for DC, Marvel and Image Comics. His style, for some, will be ideal for the gritty, dangerous and out-of-focus-around-the-edges milieu Dex Parios inhabits.

For my taste, some panels seem rushed, not fully realized. Others made me stop and look — the two-ages spread where Dex meets Isabel at Mount Tabor. The sun rises as they discuss a shaky truce.

See for yourself.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Adrian Tomine & Will Eisner

Two quick items of note. (I’m still packing for our move to Iowa.)

First, this from a press release I just received from Drawn & Quarterly about Adrian Tomine’s appearance Feb. 09, 7 to 8 p.m., at my favorite bookstore, the Strand in Manhattan:

A loose, cartoony departure from Adrian Tomine’s previous work,
Scenes From an Impending Marriage is a sweet-natured, laugh out-loud skewering of the modern marriage process, including hiring a D.J., location scouting, trips to the salon, suit fittings, dance lessons, registering for gifts and managing familial demands.

Leanne Shapton, author of
The Native Trees of Canada and Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion and Jewelry, will join Adrian on the Strand stage.

You can read my posts on an earlier Tomine graphic novel,
Shortcomings, here and here.

Also this from the Daily Cartoonist, about the people who bring you the wonderful Festival of Cartoon Art in Columbus ...

The Will and Ann Eisner Family Foundation has pledged $250,000 over five years to support the new Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum facility, part of the Sullivant Hall renovation at Ohio State University. In recognition of this gift, the library’s seminar room will be named in honor of Will Eisner. The Eisner Family Foundation gift will be matched dollar for dollar by Jean Schulz, widow of Peanuts’ creator Charles M. Schulz, giving it a $500,000 impact on the project. Ms. Schulz has promised to match donations to the new facility up to $2.5 million.

The Sullivant Hall renovation is estimated to cost $24.4 million and is scheduled to be completed in 2013, at which time Sullivant Hall will house the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum as well as The Ohio State University Department of Dance and the Department of Art Education. Upon completion of the Schulz Challenge, the Sullivant Hall renovation will be completely funded.

Read more here.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

‘Battle Angel Alita’ and a Note

While I prepare to move and start a new job, future posts for “The Sparrow Papers” might appear on a less-than-regular basis. We’ll see what happens after that.

In the meantime, volume 14 of Battle Angle Alita: Lost Order is now out. From what I’ve read so far, it appears Yukito Kishiro developed cameos for many of the long-unseen characters from his years-long tale. And that is playing to his strengths.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Brubaker, Morrison Interviewed

Today’s USA Today has brief interviews with comic book writers Ed Brubaker, about Incognito: Bad Influences, featuring the return of Zack Overkill, and Grant Morrison, about the Batman Incorporated series.

“The people who grew up reading comic books are now in charge of pop cuture,” Brubaker says. Which is the same contention made by and about Doctor Who fans who, now adult writers, actors, directors, producers, special-effects folk, marketers, et al., took over the BBC and re-launched the longest running — and best — sci-fi TV show. (The next season airs on BBC and BBC America this coming April.)

You can read my earlier post on Brubaker here, and see the USA Today stories here and here.