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)?