Thursday, July 18, 2013

New Sunday Press Extravaganza Unveiled at Comic-Con 2013

Sunday Press publisher, editor, and comics historian Peter Maresca has unveiled his wondrous new creation, SOCIETY IS NIX - GLEEFUL ANARCHY AT THE DAWN OF THE AMERICAN COMIC STRIP 1895-1915, at the 2013 San Diego Comics Convention.

Now available to buy from Sunday Press! Click here to learn more!

Visitors to the convention can peruse this massive new collection of forgotten masterpieces. Maresca's book collects over 150 color Sunday comics in their original large and impressive dimensions. The comics are from over 50 artists, many of whom you have likely never heard of, but whose work and artistry is as good as the names you are likely to know from this era. This volume is nothing less than a bolt of polychromatic lightning from the past -- a revelation.

In the first 20 years of American newspaper comics, something quite remarkable happened -- cartoonists had extraordinary freedom to create. They could have a new idea in the morning, and see it in print within 24 hours. The anarchy Maresca refers to in his title is apparent in both the rapidly changing forms of comics, and in the thinly veiled attacks on social order that many cartoonists led during this time. The thing to realize is that comics weren't expected to have long runs. Today, it's the norm for a comic strip to run for years, sometimes decades. In the 1900s, cartoonists did something different every day.

Sunday Press publisher extraordinaire Peter Maresca
at an earlier San Diego Comic-Con. His other books include
impressive collections of Little Nemo in Slumberland by Winsor McCay,
and Krazy Kat by George Herriman.

The roots of screwball humor stretch to this work. There's an intoxicating immediacy and power to comics from this time. As modern readers, we miss it, mostly. Our eyes are not trained, our minds not in synch with this earlier, weirder time. The pacing of the comics is too dense, too slow, and moves to visual melodies that are awkwardly new to us. Consider this Raymond Crawford Ewer page from 1912 -- not in the book (I don't want to spoil any surprises for you), but chosen from my own collection:

The sort of comics you'll find in Society Is Nix:
Slim Jim by Raymond Crawford Ewer - January 27, 1912
(from the collection of Paul Tumey)
As with any art of depth, time is required, and you must strive to meet the work. When you can accomplish this, the results are extremely rewarding. Society Is Nix reveals to us what comics once were, and could be -- something that modern students of this work such as art spiegelman, Chris Ware, Robert Crumb, David Lasky, Frank Young, and Seth know. And yet, there is so much more to discover and learn -- as Maresca's book shows us.

As with Nix's sister Sunday Press book, Forgotten Fantasy, this book also presents a wealth of fascinating original essays about early American comic strips by such noted historians as Peter Maresca, Thierry Smolderen, Richard Samuel West, R.C. Harvey, Brian Walker, Bill Kartalopoulos, David Gerstein, Alfredo Castelli, and Paul Tumey (blush). I was also honored to be invited to be a contributing editor, researching and writing mini-biographies of the 50 or so artists represented in the book.

You can see some of the art in the book, and read samples from the various essays at the Sunday Press site here.

And here's the opening paragraph from my essay, "Mule Kicks: American Screwball Comics Commenced in the Earliest Sunday Funnies" -

A nutty mule named Maud kicks the bejeezus out of everything with democratic chaos, offering both slapstick laughs and a sly attack on conventional society. Frederick Burr Opper’s 1904-1907 Sunday comic And Her Name Was Maud is just one of the dozens of notable early anarchic comic strips that kick-started a type of comedy called screwball—a form of condensed, surreal, escalating verbal-visual exaggeration that picked up steam in the 1920s and peaked mid-century with the Marx Brothers, Rube Goldberg, W. C. Fields, Milt Gross, Bill Holman, Tex Avery, Jack Cole, Spike Jones, Harvey Kurtzman’s Mad and Ernie Kovacs.

The book, a national treasure, will be on sale in late August or early November.  Until then, I hope you enjoy this sneak peek .

This is the sort of book that the preservers and celebrators of our culture should be doing, but aren't. Thank God, then, for Peter Maresca. Please give Sunday Press your attention and support.


On another note, I'd like to send out a celebratory CONGRATULATIONS!!! to my friends Frank M. Young and David Lasky for winning a 2013 Eisner Award for their graphic novel, The Carter Family: Don't Forget This Song. The book won an award for "Best Reality-Based Work." The winners of the 2013 Eisner Awards were announced July 19, 2013. Frank was also up for an Eisner for Best Writer. That award went to Brian K. Vaughn. Be sure to check out Frank's blogs:

Stanley Stories (An exploration of the work of John Stanley)
Supervised By Fred Avery: Tex Avery's Warner Brothers Cartoons
Comic Book Attic (co-authored with me)

And check out David Lasky's blog:

And you can read many fascinating behind the scenes postings about the making of this Eisner Award winner at Carter Family Comics: Don't Forget This Blog!

I'm very happy for Frank and David. I was around when they started the project. In fact, they worked on the book for several months in my office. It was fascinating to see them sifting through piles of books, papers, recordings and other source material (the book is meticulously researched). I was honored to see the first pages penciled and to read early versions of the book. What was supposed to be a project that would a year of work for the two men wound up taking four years from each. Many sacrifices and hardships were endured to get through the process of creating the book.

Currently, Amazon has this book available for $10 -- a huge bargain.

Here's a photo of the title page of my copy, with inscriptions from the authors:

May you stay Forever Young,
Paul Tumey

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Before Bob Clampett and Will Elder, There Was The Comic Anarchy of H.C. Greening

I love this guy. H.C. (Harry Cornell) Greening -- forgotten today -- was a screwball master of the first order. He wrote and drew numerous short-lived comic strips and Sunday features from about 1900-1920. He also did a slew of magazine cartoons and illustrations.

Greening could draw funny. He seemed to be able to get inside his character's heads and depict their screwball actions with total sincerity. They have no idea they are comic  drawings -- they think they are real, and that their endeavors are serious. And yet, when Greening draws, for example, a burglar fleeing a cop, the look of sheer focus and all-out pedal-to-the-metal hustle in the crook's face and body language is pure screwball.

Another interesting aspect to Greening's work is that his sensibility is subversive and his metier is anarchy. One of the things I admire most about his work is that it's edgy -- often pushing the boundaries of propriety and good taste. His drawing style is disarming --  he could do cute, cherub children as well as any children's book illustrator of the day. You glance at his work and you expect treacle -- you read it and you get comics that are made with the same sensibility of Plastic Man in the 1940s, Mad in the 1950s, and American Underground comics of the 1960's.

I first discovered Greening while sifting through a pile of hundreds of crumbling old comics. I had never heard of him before (and -- as yet -- know little about him or work, yet) -- but when I first encountered an example of his 1909-1910 comic, The Woo Woo Bird, I was hooked.

The premise of the Woo Woo Bird is simple: a cute talking bird (who usually announces himself: "I'm the Woo Woo Bird")suggests actions to people (usually children) that seem like a good idea, but when they do them, disaster incurs. The strips usually end with the enraged victim on their way to find and kill the Woo Woo Bird. One can only admire the truly awesome skill of the prankster bird. In this example, he teaches a young girl how to spell:

The Woo Woo Bird by H.C. Greening - April 11, 1909
(from the collection of Paul Tumey)

It seems to me that there is some sort of cultural, if not direct, lineage from the Woo Woo Bird to Bob Clampett's Daffy Duck to Woody Woodpecker (who resembles the Woo Woo Bird). In any case, there's a guilty pleasure in the way The Woo Woo Bird laughs at the gullibility of not-so-smart children. Adults are also the prey of the "mischevious" Woo Woo Bird -- to the point where the man in the following strip is literally driven mad.

The Woo Woo Bird by H.C. Greening - April 25, 1909
(from the collection of Paul Tumey)

According to Allan Holtz's American Newspaper Comics: An Encyclopedic Reference Guide (University of Michigan, 2012), The Woo Woo Bird ran for just 3 months in early 1909. However, the Barnacle Press folks, those devoted rescuers of great old comics, have on their website some Woo Woo Birds they date from 1910. You can find 13 of these gems here -- all wonderful, wacky reading.

Allan Holtz has more on H.C Greening at his Stripper's Guide site here. In this page, Allan Hotlz shares a rare scan of a 1904 Greening comic called Jocko and Jack that is a precursor to The Woo Woo Bird, with a malicious, non-talking monkey creating the havoc.

Greening's biggest success was a full-page Sunday comic called Percy - Brains He Has Nix that ran from October 1, 1911 to January 12, 1913. This comic revolved around the chaos created by a life-size "mechanism man" named Percy. Time Magazine, in a 1930 article, described the premise of the strip:

"Cartoonist Harry Cornel Greening equipped his creature with a row of buttons down the back which, when pushed, set Percy to his tasks. Only trouble—and chief source of comedy—was that, being brainless as well as tireless, Percy would keep on doing whatever he started until someone pushed another of his buttons. "
You can find 36 of Greening's Percy pages, extracted from black and white microfilm, at Barnacle Press' site here.

The Glen Bray studio made at least one Percy cartoon in 1916. Greening himself, in a 1937 letter to author Ida Tarbell, briefly recapped his career and singled out Percy as a highlight.

Harry's cartoons push the boundaries of good taste -- as in his cartoon, "From the Pupville Press," in which a sausage maker laconically, and somewhat horrifically comments on the contents of his product:

In another cartoon, a young pup sees a hot-dog shaped balloon and thinks it's a dog-angel -- the joke being that hot dogs are where stray canines wind up:

In a Thanksgiving-themed cartoon called "Hard Luck," Greening wickedly delivers a gag panel that is, in effect, a hit-and-run assault on good taste (although the turkey might taste good):

To be fair, the decade of the 1900s recycled out-of-control automobile cartoons, getting years of mileage from the general citizen's wariness of those horseless carriages. Surely this example, with its final stage direction of "(Expires.)" is one of the most off-color.

Another thing I admire about Greening's work is that he is just such a dad-blamed good artist, manipulating light and shadow, pen-stroked textures, and perfect facial and body expressions. On top of all that, his ability to render virtually anything in any scene allowed his to work with a broad visual canvas. In his cartoon "Submarine Sadness" Greening dives for a virtuoso presentation of an undersea diver. The fish have the same manic cuteness as The Woo Woo Bird.

In "Those Mountain Resort Girls," Greening builds a gag from a cliff-hanger situation.

In "Illustrated Expression," he creates a man out of straw (that is, a "straw man").

In his cartoon, "After the Thanksgiving Meal," Greening expertly renders the interior of wealthy home. Check out that snobby butler -- and the snappy writing!

In "The Elopement Cinched," Greening takes a cue from fellow cartoonist Zim, who often set his scenes in pre-Alley Oop prehistoric times. Flora, fauna, primitives, socialites... Greening's work displays an astonishing range.

Or this intriguing editorial cartoon:

More than his variety and expertise, and more than his screwball-anarchic sensibility, Greening also had a flair for innovation. Percy, his comic strip about a crazy robot was novel and innovative for 1911.  Perhaps the most interesting of Greening's work that I've seen, however, is his wordless cartoons -- what he called "moving pictures on paper." Years before this was common, Greening broke a single page into a grid of 18 small panels and played with the time signatures of the strips. In some cases a strip of panels showed incremental action, comically portraying "freeze-frame" moments of panic and chaos. The effect is similar to slow motion in a movie. In other strips, Greening jump cuts the scene with startling humorous effect. This is D.W. Griffith on paper!

The caption for "The Pie-ous Tramp's Triumph" provides the reader with directions on how to read this odd cartoon: "Rube the eyes rapidly along each row from left to right. If you do not find the pictures moving it must be because you are not easily moved." Of course, this was purely a joke, since there is much more happening here than just a novelty representation of movement.

Each "frame" of  "The Bold, Bad Burglar" is a funny picture in itself, but the overall effect is breathless -- and breath-taking:

As with H.M. Bateman's wordless, multi-panel cartoons, Greening's pages are filled with funny drawings. The work is similar in spirit to Milt Gross, who accomplished the same thing, but with a drunken, hyper scrawl. Incredibly, Greening's "Balloon Ascension" offers even greater chaos:

The jump cuts in the above comic, between panels three and four, five and six, and thirteen and fourteen are masterful.

John Adcock has shared more H.C. Greening on his website here, which I recommend to you.

Greening is in the top ten of early American cartoonists that I would love to research more thoroughly. I hope this little article has helped to reveal his place as an early master of screwball comics.

Woo Woo,
Paul Tumey

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Rube Goldberg's 1918 Fourth of July Cartoon - War and Pieces

Happy Fourth of July, 2013!

As you probably know, Rube Goldberg was born on July 4, 1883. To my knowledge, Rube never trumpeted his own birthday in his daily cartoons, but he always seemed to make a special effort in his work for the Fourth.

To celebrate the 4th and Rube's birthday, I've scanned from my own collection his strip from July 4, 1918, which features a surprisingly nice pen-and-ink sketch of Uncle Sam, and a really funny gag panel drawing of two kids wary about lighting a giant firecracker. The original strip measures 15 inches across -- which was Rube's regular space allotment in newspapers from 1909 to about 1920, or so.

The cartoon I have for you today needs a little context. In July, 1918 the United States was deeply involved in World One One, also known as "The Great War." The war had been going on for nearly four years. It would end just four months after Rube penned this cartoon. Nine million soldiers died during the conflict, and many more were maimed and psychologically damaged. This war saw technological "advancements" in weaponry that led to horrific carnage.

Ernest Hemingway was an ambulance driver in the conflict, in Italy when this cartoon came out. He was seriously wounded and sent home. Hemingway's first published novel The Sun Also Rises (1926), is centered on a character who is impotent and emotionally destroyed after serving in the war. His 1929 novel, A Farewell to Arms is drawn from his experiences in WWI.

Rube's stock-in-trade was screwball humor and funny drawings. It must have been a challenge for him to figure out how to fit his work into a bloody, deadly serious conflict. In the case of his July 4, 1918 cartoon, he eschewed humor (mostly) and delivered a sprightly editorial cartoon, abutted by a holiday-themed episode of one of his panel series, Slackers:

July 4, 1918 - Rube's cartoon from the final months of WWI
That's the German Kaiser portrayed on the left. Rube had been cartooning about the Great War since the conflict's first days, in 1914.. In fact, he began as an unplanned observer on the front lines. In 1913, Rube had made his first successful tour of Europe (paid for by his newspaper employer, The Evening Mail) and dispatched a series of popular cartoons, "Boobs Abroad," humorously recounting his experiences. Rube was probably feeling on top of the world in the summer of 1914, the following year, when his paper again sent him on an all-expenses-paid tour of Europe. Everything was going as planned until, a few weeks after his arrival, World War One broke out.

Rube changed the subject matter of his cartoons and columns sent back home from the light-hearted experiences of a tourist to that of a humorist observing the chaos and confusion of a war's early escalation. The result was a remarkable series of cartoons, such as this one, entitled "If You Are On The Ground, Naturally You Can Understand The War Situation More Thoroughly."

Rube Goldberg reports from France during World War One, 1914
These cartoons were collected into a book, with some of Rube's Twain-like prose writing. The book, more of a pamphlet at 32 pages, was called Seeing History At Close Range: The Experiences of An American Cartoonist Marooned In France During the Outbreak of the Present War. Rube was into really long titles around time.

In the book's introduction, Rube makes it clear that he had no intention of minimizing the horrors of the war."In preparing these stories and cartoons I have never for one instant lost sight of the tragic side of this terrible conflict which has brought sorrow to the hearts of thousands of good people in the warring countries."

He goes on to write, "If I succeed in drying a tear or two without sacrificing the ideals of human feeling I shall be able to look the Statue of Liberty in the face and write her telephone number down in my little red book."

Rube was stuck, for a time, in the midst of the conflict in France. He needed to produce official documents to the military authorities in order to return to the United States, and he had none. Finally, in desperation, he brandished a dentist's bill he found in a suitcase, and managed to pass it off as an official government document, which resulted in his safe passage home.

In the next few years, Rube worked tirelessly to raise money for the war effort, often performing the sketch act that he perfected in his Vaudeville tours. He returned to Europe just three months after the war ended and, on February 29, 1919 published a column (few realize that for much his career, Rube penned a newspaper column as well as daily cartoons)  in which the great humorist allowed himself a moment of sober reflection:

"I can add little to the numerous camera and word pictures you have seen so often. But there is one thing that the camera cannot give you. It is the choking sensation you get when you see a small wooden cross alongside the road out there in the wilderness marking the spot where one of our boys gave all he had to give to keep the rest of us clean and free."

February 28, 1919 - Rube Goldberg write in his column
a heartfelt and sober reflection on war
Years later, in 1938, Rube moved from his daily humor strips to become a Pulitzer-Prize-winning political cartoonist. As we see here, he was unafraid to step away from humor once in a while earlier in his career and pen a patriotic war-themed cartoon for the Fourth.

For more of Rube's Fourth cartoons, see last year's article on the subject: Rube Goldberg On The Fourth of July.

Shameless Plug Department: I have begun a new column, Framed!, for the online magazine, The Comics Journal. My first column is called The Lost Comics of Jack Cole - Part One (1931-38). I invite you to check it out.

Happy Independence Day,
Paul Tumey