WHO’S YOUR FAVOURITE SUPERHERO? (Part One of Two)

Before we get rolling, Happy Halloween! Whether you celebrate Halloween as a fun night for the kids, a time to get silly with costumes and decorations, as Samhain or just a good time to stay indoors and indulge your love of chocolate and strawberries or chocolate and alcohol (I recommend liqueur-filled chocolates for that one); or even if you dislike the day for religious reasons, I still wish you a happy day. Just because we’re both on the correct side of the dirt, if nothing else!

You may not read comics; I know there are people who feel they’re a waste of time and fit only for the illiterate or children. That’s a shame, as some of the best writers and artists of the modern age have written or are writing and drawing comics—either as single-panel cartoons (Have you ever chuckled over an editorial cartoon in the paper? That’s a very short comic!), daily or weekly strips—to be fair, there are also some real dogs; there is a daily strip in the Vancouver Sun that is so badly written and drawn that it’s excruciatingly painful to read—or as traditional comics, manga or the like, or what are now called “graphic novels.” Come with me; I hope you’ll find this interesting, even though this is not going to be a thorough history or examination of comics and cartoons. Just my usual idiosyncratic look at something I hope you’ll like.

Figure 1 - © Graham Harrop, used by permission

Figure 1 – © Graham Harrop, used by permission

Although according to Wikipedia, William Hogarth is thought of as the precursor to the political cartoon (which is what the editorial cartoon is often called), the first real political cartoons came about in the 1750s, culminating in today’s stunning editorial cartoonists typefied by Pulitzer-prize-winner David Horsey, who worked for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer until its demise as a print newspaper, and then moved to the L.A. Times. Or the Vancouver Sun’s Graham Harrop, who has an amazing minimalist style and does political, humour, corporate stuff and so on. (When I lived in Edmonton, I was usually quite impressed with the drawings of Malcolm Mayes for the Edmonton Journal. The best editorial cartoonists usually have a style similar to Horsey or Mayes, but Harrop can hold his own. Editorial cartoonists, when doing political commentary—which is usually shorter and much more pointed than you will get elsewhere—can point out the shortcomings of both left and right wings. This particular cartoon is not an editorial or political one, but it does show Harrop’s unique style.

Before we jump into comic strips, a few more words about single-panel cartoons. Cartoons are great space fillers for print magazines; one of the most famous markets for cartoons is the New Yorker. The Addams Family of TV and movie fame began as a series of related single-panel cartoons by Charles Addams in the New Yorker, although the usual New Yorker cartoon is normally thought to be either “highbrow,” or something actual New Yorkers are more prone to enjoy than people in other parts of the country, though I don’t think that’s true. There are too many well-known New Yorker cartoonists—as opposed to illustration or cover artists—to mention; people like Syd Hoff, Chon Day, William Steig, James Thurber, Ronald Searle et al. (Interestingly—at least to me—a fairly large number of cartoonists have sold only one cartoon to the New Yorker.) I occasionally pick up that magazine because I still enjoy most of its cartoons.

Figure 2 - New Yorker William Steig cartoon ©New Yorker Magazine

Figure 2 – New Yorker William Steig cartoon ©New Yorker Magazine

There were also specialized humour magazines that published mostly single-panel humourous cartoons; one that I remember fondly was the erotic humourous cartoon magazine Sex to Sexty. Although Sex to Sexty was touted as an “adult” magazine of comic humour, by today’s standards the “adult” portion would seem mighty tame, I think, though it’s been years since I’ve seen one. Bill Ward’s large-breasted women wearing silver lamé dresses were usually found there; Ward had a talent for making that lamé stand out (no pun intended), as well as nylons and leather clothing.

Most of the “adult” magazines publish adult and/or erotic cartoons—although Playboy’s cartoons are not always of the adult type.  Playboy has had both single-panel cartoons, strips and full-page cartoons, by such luminaries as Gahan Wilson, Shel Silverstein, Jules Feiffer, Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder, and BobbyDirty DuckLondon, as well as many more. Back in the ‘70s, Hustler magazine, one of the more explicit erotic magazines, ran more explicit cartoons, as well—many of its cartoonists went out of their way to be offensive, with jokes about everything from BDSM to necro-, pedo- and coprophilia—most of them that I saw inspired reactions (in me) from severe wincing to outright repulsion; once Larry Flynt, the publisher/editor “got religion,” a lot of that was toned down. (We try not to be judgmental about other people’s humour, even when it’s terrible. That’s a joke, folks.)

Fanzines, like other magazines, found that fan cartoonists could provide not only cartoons as space fillers, but also spot illustrations (called “fillos”) and even covers; the most popular fanartists are the prolific ones. (There are some artists who are prolific but not very good; those have usually been weeded out early). I’ve been out of the fanzine world for some time… and yes, I’ve been lazy, because anyone can go to http://efanzines.com and catch up on what’s happening. So let me just mention a few of my favourite fanartists who are cartoonists as well.

Figure 3 - A Rotsler cartoon from his Tumblr page ©Estate of W.Rotsler

Figure 3 – A Rotsler cartoon from his Tumblr page ©Estate of W.Rotsler

And let me say in advance that just because I don’t mention a fanartist doesn’t mean that person is not a favourite, or no good as a cartoonist, because frankly, I don’t know them all, so I have to go with who I know. And I’m bound to forget someone and thereby insult them. So let me start with one who has an award named after him: the Rotsler Award. I’m talking about William Rotsler, who was an artist, writer, sculptor, filmmaker and Ghu knows what else. I didn’t know him very well, but he was every faneditor’s dream. Bill Rotsler doodled. Constantly. And every damn doodle was a cartoon or a beautiful fillo; rare was the fanzine back in the ‘80s that didn’t have (or have available to use) a Rotsler fan column header. He carried a folder around at cons, filled with fillos and cartoons; all you had to do was ask, and you were given. His cartoon characters with the big noses were instantly recognizable, and his “serious” fillos resembled—but did not copy—the pen-and-ink work of Jack Gaughan. You can find examples of Rotsler’s cartoons—many of them collaborative efforts with other cartoonists—online.

Here’s one I first found back in the Dark Ages in the pages of Richard E. Geis’s Alien Critic, who used to work for the US Government Bureau of Standards, someplace like Virginia or Washington, DC, and had some very pointed things to say about those folks in his cartoons: Alexis A. Gilliland. This example features his wizard, Wizenbeak, and is from the pages of Mimosa 10, by Nicki and Richard Lynch. (Gilliland has written three novels about Wizenbeak, and at least three other SF/F books.) If I remember correctly, he used to churn these cartoons out during times of either boredom or stress at work, and many of them featured governmental idiocies put into cartoon form. (Ed. Note:  Much of Alexi’s art can be found here.)

Figure 4 - Alexis Gilliland from Mimosa 10 © A. Gilliland

Figure 4 – Alexis Gilliland from Mimosa 10 © A. Gilliland

Other favourite cartoonists from the pages of fanzines include, in no particular order (basically, as they come to mind) Tim Kirk, who has his own hilarious and idiosyncratic style; Steve Stiles, whose often sardonic and also easily recognizable cartoons grace not only the interiors but also the covers of many fanzines; A.L. “Al” Sirois, who’s a writer, artist and musician whose art ranges from “fine” art to cartooning. (I should stop saying that; most, if not all, of these artists are doing or have done professional art and/or fine arts, whether it be in the comic range or other.) There’s also Rotsler Award-winning Grant Canfield, whose fine and confident lines adorned the pages of and covers of Bill Bowers’s Hugo-winning fanzine, Outworlds, among others. And Brad W. Foster, who’s been nominated for fanart Hugos more than anyone else, and who has won 8!

Before I continue with this part, I’d also like to say that it has been my experience that the better artists are usually good at something else in the range of the arts; music or writing or sometimes both and/or other arts. Many fine genre writers started out as artists and/or cartoonists—for example: Harry Harrison, Greg Bear, William Gibson, Al Sirois, Bill Rotsler, Ray Faraday Nelson, Alexis Gilliland—all those have multiple genre books to their credit. That’s only scratched the surface; many other artists have had at least one SF/F book published. (Again, if I’ve neglected to mention someone, please don’t take it as a critique; I usually rely on my memory to throw up material, and like Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) on the TV series Quantum Leap, sometimes my memory is “swiss-cheesed.” (And I don’t have an Al Calavicci [Dean Stockwell] to help me out.)

A more recent—well, “recent” meaning within the last 20 years or so—member of the “my favourite comic artists” group is Kevin Brockschmidt. Kev’s polished comic style hides a real funny–and sometimes twisted–sense of humour. Although I’ve hardly scratched the surface of “single-panel” cartoonists, it would take a very long article, or a magazine or book, to exhaust that subject; as you can see, the fanartists alone would take that much. So before I run out of column space, let me dip my toe into the world of strips… that is, multi-panel strips run in newspapers and the like on a daily or weekly basis; alas, we must leave the world of fanart and go back to the wider world of publishing.

Although our local paper, the Vancouver Sun, only publishes six days a week, it has a page of black-and-white daily comic strips on all of those publishing days, as well as an added two-page colour spread on Saturday. The full-colour page or pages are usually published on Sunday in the US; since the Vancouver Sun doesn’t publish on Sunday, the full-colour double spread comes out on Saturday. I can’t remember if the Edmonton Journal did it on Saturday or Sunday, but I’m leaning towards Saturday. (Since the colour comics are usually called “The Sunday Funnies” in the United States, it’s kind of weird to find them on Saturday.) One of the strips may be in the Sun because it’s cheap, because I can’t think of any other reason to include it. I don’t know if there are any syndicated superhero strips still available. The first colour newspaper comic strip is universally acknowledged to be R.F. Outcalt’s “The Yellow Kid,” in Hogan’s Alley in The New York World, first published in 1895. (See Figure 2.) As you can see, the Yellow Kid’s clothing was his “speech balloon.”

Figure 5 - Hogan's Alley Yellow Kid (out of copyright)

Figure 5 – Hogan’s Alley Yellow Kid (out of copyright)

The history of newspaper comic strips—and there are several books out about it—is a rich one; just for an example, the Katzenjammer Kids, created by Rudolph Dirks, started in 1895; as a result of a copyright issue when Dirks left William Randolph Hearst’s paper for Joseph Pulitzer’s, he took the characters’ copyright with him, but the name’s copyrights remained with Hearst. So Hearst just had another artist, Harold Knerr, take over the Katzenjammer Kids. Dirks continued drawing the same strip under a new name, Hans and Fritz, which later became the well-known The Captain and the Kids. (Dirks had himself lifted the idea from a German strip called Max and Moritz (1865) by Wilhelm Busch, exchanging the German moralism—bad boys get extreme punishment—for a more American humourous take, where bad boys don’t get punished quite as heinously as the originals did.) I can remember reading The Captain and the Kids as well as the Katzenjammer Kids in the ‘60s and, according to Wikipedia, the latter strip is still going, making it the longest-running strip of all time! Other extremely long-running strips include Gasoline Alley—the grandkids of the original characters are now, I believe, the main characters; Barney Google and Snuffy Smith; Thimble Theater/Popeye; and Little Orphan Annie (arf!). All of the last-named strips began in 1918-1919, so in five years those will also be a hundred years old!

Figure 6 - Pogo cast ©Estate of Walt Kelly

Figure 6 – Pogo cast ©Estate of Walt Kelly

At first, most newspaper strips were funny ones, either funny human or funny animal—I can’t let this thread go without mentioning one of my favourite strips of all time, drawn by Walt Kelly: Pogo! I might come back to this in the future, because if you haven’t ever read Pogo then you’ve been deprived, in my opinion, of one of life’s great experiences! Pogo, set in the Okefenokee swamp, was both humourous and political—Kelly’s take on Senator Joseph McCarthy was priceless; McCarthy was depicted as a bulldog. If you’re a Pogo fan, you’ll recognize the unnamed turtle at right in Figure 6. Bueller? Anyone? (Hint, in French it’s “look for the woman.”)

Anyway, to continue, sometime in the ‘20s or ‘30s, adventure strips, such as Tarzan, began to appear. And here we’ll leave you to your own devices; next week we’ll take up where we left off. There are a number of places on the web to find not only old strips, but new ones; a quick Google search will bring up such sites as GoComics. As a matter of fact, as of Oct. 15—which is the 109th birthday of this strip, GoComics is rerunning all the original Little Nemo strips by Winsor McCay; four each Sunday. This strip is a classic—McCay’s draughtsmanship and storytelling were second to none; take a look at the first one and see if you don’t agree: http://www.gocomics.com/little-nemo. (His other strip, Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend, was also terrific!)

So, what about superheroes? We’re coming to that. Unfortunately, not until next week, when I finish this.

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