Saturday, December 29, 2012

Taking the Bate: The 1922 H.M. Bateman Punch Cartoons

Here's another pile of punchy screwball mini-masterworks by that early English comics master, H.M. Bateman.

I am super busy at the time of this posting, thus I can only offer brief comments on these beauties, which all  appeared in the pages of various 1922 issues of the English magazine Punch. Harvey Kurtzman cited Bateman as a major influence. In looking at these adept examples of caricature and sequential design, the connection between an early 20th century staid English cartoonist and a mid-20th century New York Jewish master of satire becomes clearer.

A hallmark of Mad creator Harvey Kurtzman's work is the dense, rectangular comic tableau, usually a double-page spread (and often burnished to a dazzling gleam by Kurtzman's collaborator, Will Elder). Consider then this dense, insane 1922 spread from the summer number of Punch:

Prefiguring Kurtzman and Mad: H.M. Bateman in Punch, 1922

And speaking of connections to other cartoonist, here's a two page sequence by Bateman filled with sublime surreal images that show Winsor McCay wasn't the only early cartoonist to explore dreams on paper:

Aside from Bateman's panoramic compositions and his surreal forays, the most notable thing to me about Bateman -- and what makes his work truly great -- is that his cartoons are genuinely funny. The guy, like Rube Goldberg, Milt Gross, and E.C. Segar, could just plain draw funny. Check out the facial expressions and poses of these two characters as they escalate a silly competition to absurd heights -- a similar comic structure to Milt Gross' comics, come to think of it:

Bateman also published several single panel cartoons in the pages of Punch. Here's a particularly great one. The heroic portrayal of a scrawny, self-important man in shorts and tee shirt is the first serve of humor. After we parry with a guffaw, we are served a rich cast of screwball characters in the wings. Match point.

Lastly, here's a hairy page by Bateman that shows a Monty Python playfulness with words. It's doubtful that "beaver" had the slang association in 1922 England that it possessed a few decades later (including an unforgettable literary use in Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions). The prickly cartoon images are, as always, funnier and funnier as your brush up against them:

Many thanks to cartoonist and comics scholar James Gill who shared with me the link to this wonderful Punch archive. Be sure to check out his rich and varied blog devoted to essential cartooning by everyone from Dali to Dylan: Cartoon Simple.

This makes 108 postings in 2012 -- most of which contain good quality paper scans from my own collection. WIshing you all the best for 2013.

That is All (for 2012) ,
Screwball Paul

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Season's Greetings From Major Hoople 1930

Dear Fellow Friends in Screwballism~

Wishing you a happy holiday season. I had intended to share more holiday-themed comics from my collection but, alas, there rarely seems to be enough time to do it all. That's a good thing, I reckon.

In any case, while cleaning up today, I ran across these two crumbling Our Boarding House Sundays and noticed they are both from Christmas, 1930. These comics are so accessible and funny to me today that it's hard to believe they are 82 years old! Perhaps that says something about my tastes being old-fashioned, but I also like to think it also speaks to the greatness of Gene Ahern. I found a few minutes to gently place the pages on my scanner, and so here they are, for your enjoyment.

First, we find the Major desperate to raise some cash for the holiday. This page contains some classic flustering about the need to work to earn money, confound it! The second Sunday from the next week, is Ahern's Christmas strip for the year and he pulls out all the stops with the Major's grand recounting of his past Christmas adventures. The page ends with a Christmas Card to Ahern's readers, something often found in holiday episodes of American newspaper comics of this period.

I hope you enjoy these, and please be sure to check over at my other blog, Cole's Comics, where I have posted a new Jack Cole "find" every day for the 12 days leading up to December 25 -- I call it the

12 Days of Cole-Miss

Happy Holidaze, my friends ~
Paul Tumey

Our Boarding House by Gene Ahern - December 14, 1930
(Collection Paul Tumey)

Our Boarding House by Gene Ahern - December 21, 1930
(Collection Paul Tumey)

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Rube Goldberg's The Boob Family (1917)

That generative genius, Ruben Lucius Goldberg, was a wellspring of new ideas. His biographer, Peter Marzio, estimated that Rube created somewhere around 50,000 cartoons in his 56-year career from 1904-1960. It's astonishing that, in this era of  enlightened comics scholarship, this massive body of work by an American icon remains largely unknown and undiscovered. Much of Rube's humor is as effective today as it was 100 years ago, because it is based on human foibles, rather than topical events. His satirical-surreal-screwball approach remains accessible to audiences of today.

A few months ago, as I worked on the forthcoming new Rube Goldberg book in the offices of Abrams  Books in New York City, it hit me: Rube Goldberg is the Jack Kirby of American newspaper comics. Just as Kirby created an astonishing flow of new ideas, new characters, and new stories -- so did Rube. As much as there is a Jack Kirby "Universe," so is there a Rube Goldberg Universe. I sat in an office where every square inch was covered by Rube's cartoons. Every surface, every tabletop, every desk held little piles of his cartoons. We filled shelves with his works as we sorted them. We were literally hip-deep in the man's work.

Two of several piles of Rube Goldberg cartoons
sifted for the upcoming book from Abrams
(and my 12-year old son's ipad, borrowed for this work) 


In the same way that Jack Kirby appears to have been touched by boundless inspiration and energy, Rube Goldberg created numerous excellent comic series. Where most American newspaper cartoonists picked one or two ponies such as Blondie or Bringing Up Father, and rode them for years, Rube Goldberg made a different comic strip every day for decades. Within his vast body of work, Rube sometimes made little mini-series, and sometimes created new forms of comics, such as Foolish Questions and his famous invention cartoon, which he randomly repeated for years. As if that weren't enough, most of Rube's published daily comic strips are sub-divided into two, three or more smaller comics, in an early version of a Chris Ware style presentation. Most dailies in from 1914 or so until 1923 are very large matrices of comics, humor, and surrealism.

For a few weeks in early 1917, part of this matrix included The Boob Family, a trenchant satire of family life featuring Mr. and Mrs. Boob, and their homely infant, Otto. Here's Rube's full daily from January 17, 1917 -- the first appearance of The Boob Family.

The first appearance of The Boob Family by Rube Goldberg - January 17, 1917
(Collection Carl Linich)
Small families with newborn babes are used as comic fodder by several early American newspaper cartoonists including George McManus (The Newlyweds) , George Herriman (The Dingbat Family) and later, Milt Gross (Nize Baby). Goldberg's take is characteristically among the screwball of the lot, mainly due to the wizened old man appearance of the baby Otto. Prior to 1916, when Goldberg married Irma Seaman, his comics made rare -- if any -- mention of family life. With a new wife and successful career , a baby was just a matter of time (his first son Tom was born in 1918). So in 1917, we see 34-year old Rube contemplating family life and fatherhood. In a very real sense, Rube is making fun of his own misgivings and fears of a formerly unfettered man about married life.

By all accounts, Rube and Irma had a very successful marriage. In fact, they were married 54 years, until Rube's death in 1970. In his Boob Family strip, however, there is very little respect or love bestowed upon Mr. Boob in his family. Most of the episodes center around Mr. Boob vainly trying to retain his stature as head of the family in the face of Mrs. Boob's imposing presence. The baby Otto also seems to trip up the schemes of his Dad  -- although Goldberg has little feel for the actual experience of raising a child, yet. In fact, the whole scheme seems to be less about the adventures of a new family and more about how the whole family concept is rigged against the dad from the start. It's interesting to realize that in 1952, Rube Goldberg presented cartoonist Hank Ketcham a National Cartoonist Society award (called a Reuben after Rube) for his Dennis the Menace series -- a concept Rube had briefly explored in his own way before Ketcham was even born. The combination of the silly drawings and the deadpan delivery of a screwball family dynamic in the 1917 Boob Family comics have some promise, and it's too bad that Rube only explored this concept for a couple of weeks before discarding it and moving on.

We see this pattern over and over in Rube's career. Comics historian Bill Blackbeard called Rube:

 "... the San Francisco cartoonist who spent the undeniable talent to produce at least one great comic strip on half a dozen less than properly accomplished and sustained works over a long and busy lifetime." (introduction, Bobo Baxter, Hyperion Press 1977). 

Rube Goldberg's  genius for a continual flow of invention created a brilliant, but chaotic body of work. This may be the reason that most of the work of such a seminal and important figure in comics history has remained largely out of print for generations. In any case, The Boob Family is a fun read, even in its brevity.

Here's a selection from the short run of wonderfully screwball Boob Family by Rube Goldberg. I've put in a little work on digital restoration of these.

January 17, 1917 - The first episode

January 18, 1917

January 19, 1917

January 20, 1917

January 22, 1917

January 23, 1917
January 24, 1917

January 25, 1917

January 26, 1917

January 27, 1917

January 29, 1917

Many thanks to Carl Linich for supplying the original comic strips for this post from his own collection. Check out his blog devoted to Gene Ahern's great screwball comic, The Squirrel Cage.

For a different screwball pitch entirely, be sure to check out my other blog, Cole's Comics, devoted to a study of the life and work of the comics and cartooning master Jack Cole. Currently, I'm running a 12 Days of Cole-Miss event, where I'm sharing coll new Jack Cole discoveries every day until December 25!

That is All,
Screwball Paul Tumey

All text copyright 2012 Paul C. Tumey

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Major Hoople's Guide to the Island of Jujuwok (1931) With Side-Trips to Goldberg and Walt McDougall

The "Legend"
In this season of heavy rains and flooded basements, I offer as relief a classic Our Boarding House excursion to an exotic water-logged isle, in a nice big paper scan from my own collection.

Major Hoople is a legend in his own mind. The contrast between Hoople's imagined heroism and his considerably more humble "real" life as an overstuffed blowhard layabout is the essential comic engine that Gene Ahern drove nearly every day for 14 years on Our Boarding House (1922-36), and then for another 17, with Room and Board (1936-53). Within this comic formula, Ahern devised endless variations. One of the richest, and a personal favorite, are what might be called The Alvin Stories.

Alvin, nephew to Major Hoople and his wife Martha, is the perfect foil for the Major's self-aggrandizing Falstaffian boasting. The pie-eyed boy hangs on every word, encouraging the Major to concoct one improbable, fantastic adventure after another. From feats of absurd bravery as a soldier, to Paul Bunyan-like achievements as a logger, to Olympic athlete (see an example here), to genius inventor, to intrepid world explorer -- the Major's (and Ahern's) capacity for imagined adventures is richly entertaining. Essentially, the fantasy worlds of Major Hoople are the structural inversion of the actual fantastic world of Foozland that Ahern would explore in his multi-year comic strip masterpiece, The Squirrel Cage.

The formula of The Alvin Stories is simple, but richly entertaining. First, the Major spins his wild yarns to Alvin's delight. Alvin -- who believes every syllable the Major utters -- then asks an innocent question, and the Major sputters out some excuse, realizing he has painted himself into a corner, his bubble burst. Often, there's a hint of pathos in Ahern's comic, even as we laugh at Hoople's buffoonery.

In today's example, the Major imagines Jujuwok, an impossible South Seas island that sinks into the ocean every night. The payoff is in the silly drawings of walking fish and web-footed cats.

A classic Alvin Story" episode of Gene Ahern's Our Boarding House -- March 22, 1931
(Collection Paul Tumey)

How wonderful it would be to have an uncle capable of spinning endless imaginative yarns. One wonders if the Alvin Stories were perhaps an inspiration to a comics master of the generation after Ahern, John Stanley, famous for his Little Lulu comics. Filling monthly comic books, Stanley created a variation in the Lulu adventures in which Lulu, forced to babysit her bratty little boy neighbor (or sometimes simply ward off his swaths of destruction), makes up a series of wildly imaginative stories. These stories are stream-of-consciousness wonders, and some of my favorite comics. Could it be mere coincidence that Lulu's little boy neighbor's name is also Alvin?

For more on John Stanley's Alvin stories, be sure to visit Stanley Stories, the blog of my pal and colleague, Frank Young, by clicking here.

The Goldberg Variations
In earlier articles, I've mapped the artistic connection between Gene Ahern and Rube Goldberg's penchant for building wacky cartoon inventions. Ahern also walked in Goldberg's footsteps across pulpy Sunday pages to exotic and improbable lands, such as the one above. In his long-running Sunday comic, Boob McNutt (1918-1934), Rube Goldberg (whose very name means "mountain of gold") visited a wacky South Seas island in "Boob's Ark" (1931-32), his longest and most ambitious continuity. The story arc of "The Ark" spans two year's worth of Sundays, with the first several months occurring on a jungle island populated by strange animals.

In this sequence, for example, we encounter the gong-tailed bumpzozzle:

The gong-tailed bumpzopple, from the 1931-32 Boob's Ark continuity in Rube Golberg's Boob McNutt comic.
That's Mike and Ike (They Look Alike) in the bottom tier.
July 5, 1931 (Collection Paul Tumey)

Of course, the idea of visiting a bizarre land filled with invented creatures is not something that originates with  Goldberg or Ahern. The concept stretches back much further in comics. For example, we see it in Walt McDougall's breathtaking 1904 Queer Visitors From The Marvellous Land of Oz comics (in that variation, the strange land was the United States, as the Oz characters visited our world!). Pete Maresca's jaw-dropping book on McDougall's Oz comics is highly recommended.

Even before the Oz comics, McDougall spun elaborate tales of exotic lands and queer creatures in his Good Stories for Children newspaper stories,featuring both his prose writing and illustrations. Here's an example from my collection, featuring the unforgettable spookissimus:. This is a huge image, so you can read the werra werra tiny print -- so give it time to load.

Walt McDougall's astonishing Good Stories for Children featured surreal, beautifully screwball imagery
August 24, 1902 (Collection Paul Tumey)

Going back further, the concept appears in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels. And in Dante's Inferno. And Homer's Odyessey. In other words, the concept of travels to imaginary lands populated by strange creatures is probably as old as storytelling itself.

A real life, true version of this tale is detailed in art critic Robert Hughes' book, The Fatal Shore, in which exiled criminals land on the shores of Australia and discover a world of bizarre natives and odd creatures (the kangaroo is a pretty fantastic critter, when you think about it).

Ahern's and Goldberg's variations on the exotic land concept are uneven and not always successful. However, I applaud their willingness to take chances and follow their own creative impulses. When they do manage to pull it off, the result is a refreshing and delightfully screwball experience.

Hat is Tall,
Screwpaul Ball

See also:
Gene Ahern's Icthyological Screwballism
Rube Goldberg's Amazing Boob McNutt's Ark: The Man-Eating Biffsniffle
Ohio State University's page on Walt McDougall, with many great scans

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Gene Ahern Does Rube Goldberg (Our Boarding House 1933)

There can be no doubt that Gene Ahern very deliberately followed in Rube Goldberg's footsteps. As of yet, I have found no evidence that the two great cartoonists knew each other personally. Rube spent most of his life in New York City, and Ahern lived most of his life in a city just outside of Los Angeles - so it's unlikely they hung out as pals.  Artistically, however, it seems clear that Ahern (like Milt Gross) owes a huge artistic debt to Rube Goldberg.

Rube Goldberg began his cartooning career in 1904, when he was 21; Ahern in 1914, at age 20. If Rube Goldberg is the premier first generation screwball cartoonist, then Ahern  is one of the top second generation screwball comics masters, with Milt Gross following along about 6-7 years later.

The first official Rube Goldberg invention cartoon, an automatic weight reducing machine, appeared in August, 1914. Over the next few years, Goldberg perfected his formula and created a unique cartoon format that made him famous, putting his name into the dictionary.

 In this example, from Carl Linich's blog on Gene Ahern, The Squirrel Cage, we see Ahern employing a very similar approach, with -- as Carl observes -- a Dr. Seuss flavor.

By 1919, Ahern's comics appeared in some newspapers directly underneath Goldberg's. In this example from 1919, we see a masterful Rube Goldberg daily from his Boobs Abroad series, detailing the comic misadventures of his third European vacation. While Rube is a seasoned pro, Ahern is still finding his voice as cartoonist -- note how similar the title of his nascent strip, Squirrel Food, is to his later Nut Brothers and The Squirrel Cage.
Rube Goldberg gets top billing over Gene Ahern in 1919.
Two screwball masters at two different stages of their careers

Ahern scored a major hit about three years later, when he created Our Boarding House. He successfully wrote and drew the adventures of Major Hoople for fourteen years, until he left in 1936, when he started up Room and Board and most significantly, The Squirrel Cage. In this Sunday funny featuring Ahern's Our Boarding House in 1933, we see Ahern -- now a leading cartoonist in America, paying homage to his artistic mentor, Rube Goldberg, with a series of nutty inventions, Hoople-style. True to his character, the Major's silly inventions are all bulwarks of his own laziness. In the last panel, he is "inventing" as a way to avoid doing any actual labor.

The scan is from my own collection, and also features a surreal Nut Brothers topper strip as well as a Silly Snapshots panel -- another play on a tried-and-true Goldbergian formula, complete with a grotesque caricature. The Nut Brothers is also an invention tour de force, anticipating the early years of The Squirrel Cage.

January 29, 1933 - from the collection of Paul Tumey

Too bad that Ahern and Goldberg never collaborated.

That is all,
Screwball Paul