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Thursday, June 19, 2008

Comics Legend Richard F. Outcault - From 1999


Scholars recognized long ago that comics are accurate records of their times, depicting not only the clothing styles, attitudes, and vocabulary of their era, but also social concerns. This was true from the beginning when Richard F. Outcault created Hogan's Alley (later known as The Yellow Kid) for the New York World newspaper.

In 1995, America was only beginning to recognize its urban problems. More people probably learned about the conditions in the slums through the comics than would ever have read or heard the words of reformers like Jacob Riis, author of How The Other Half Lives. Outcault's strip depicted the violence and poverty facing the children of slums, but like Charles Dickens, he found the humor lurking beneath the horror.

Until now, anyone wishing to see a complete collection of Outcault's work had to go to the San Francisco Academy of Comic Art. To celebrate the 1995 centennial of comics, Kitchen Sink Press published a major anthology: R. F. Outcault's The Yellow Kid (hardback: $55.00; paperback $39.95).

This is the cornerstone of any collection of historically important comic strips. In addition to 121 marvelously reproduced color illustrations, there are 146 pages of valuable history. This reader was surprised to learn that the term "yellow journalism" did not spring from the rise of a new yellow dye for the Kid's nightshirt. Another revelation was Kid made "guest appearances" in Outcault's other major strip, Buster Brown. The child of the slums and the child of wealth make a strange combination.



This book has to be seen to be appreciated. Buy a copy before it goes out-of-print or urge your library to acquire a copy.

Kitchen Sink Press has published many valuable retrospective collections; e.g., Steve Canyon and Li'l Abner comic strips. These are essential to any collection, but are also fun to read.

Reviewed by Dr. Jon Suter

Hellboy - From 1999


The Corpse and the Iron Shoes, The Wolves of Saint August, and Wake the Devil are all from Dark Horse and sold in comics shops and by mail.

It takes one to know one. This one is a "world-renowned occult investigator... field agent for The Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense" and a paranormal himself.

Hellboy is a dehorned devil. Hellboy is also a busy little devil. In the three reviewed books, he tackles numerous mythological creatures of the night based closely on folklore instead of Hollywood's interpretation of folklore. If the premise were also its strength, the best that readers could expect from this series would be technically well done but mundane rehashes of very tired monster stories. After all, even the idea of a paranormal investigator has been done to death.

Raise your expectations.

The strength of Hellboy is its style, which is marvelous indeed. Artist and writer Mike Mignola is stylistically a minimalist. That means that unless a line of art or word is absolutely essential to the story, it doesn't get drawn or written. The effect of minimalism is either a readership feeling cheated because the story moves so quickly both visually and in its plot, or a readership focused on exactly what the writer and artist feels is important.

Hellboy is important stuff.

The simplicity of Mignola's art is a joy, much enhanced by color. The tone of the series is definitely dark and brooding, and color is essential to simplicity in creating atmosphere. More abstract and design oriented than illustrative, Mignola's art is a masterpiece of its discipline.

Nor does Hellboy suffer from its drought of words. Scant dialog and captions are so carefully chosen that art and word becomes almost a perfect marriage.

Highly recommended.

Michael Vance

Ghost In The Shell - From 1999


We've got Trouble right here in Suspended Animation City. That starts with T and rhymes with Z and has nothing to do with G. If that make no sense, then neither does Ghost In The Shell at times.

Why it occasionally makes little sense is also a problem. This is a Japanese "manga" (comic book) translated into English. It could be that the translation is inept, or that the cartoonist is simply obscure, or that these problems stem from cultural differences in storytelling.

Ghost's... premise is... anyone's guess. It appears that a clandestine government agency battles the theft of robotics technology or the 'ghosts' that inhabit the semi-robots, robots and rare whole humans that inhabit this future Japan.

Who is whole or semi or robotic is an unintentionally well-kept, confusing secret through most of this series. The heavy use of technobabble at times in describing this robotic technology and ghosts further muddies the plot. Outside of these glitches, Ghost... is entertaining and well written.

Just as jarring as its technobabble and premise is Shirow's art. Although this seems a cultural influence, most of it is an unsettling mix of very cartoonish and realistic styles. As example, realistic human bodies are topped by very cartoonish faces. Imagine Michelangelo's David with Dagwood's head.

Ghost... is such a mishmash of fascinating art and idea muddled by infrequently inept storytelling that clear recommendation is Impossible.

And that starts with an I and rhymes with "Why Bother?", and most, outside of well-heeled manga fans, shouldn't.

Ghost In The Shell #s 1, 2, 5-8 are 42 to 48 pages in length and priced at $3.95 each. Published by Dark Horse Comics and written and drawn by Masamune Shirow. The translation was done by Fred Schodt and Toren Smith. It is available in comics shops and by mail.

Michael Vance

Gasoline Alley - From 1999


Frank King created Gasoline Alley as a single-panel comic 'strip' in 1918. The cartoonist focused on the country's obsession with automobiles until Alley evolved into a family oriented strip when Skeezix, an orphaned baby was left on Walt Wallet's doorstep in 1921. Even among family strips, it was almost unique in its use of "realistic time" as opposed to condensed, lengthened or nonexistent time used in most fiction. Frank King's characters aged.

King was born in 1883 and began as a cartoonist at the Minneapolis Times newspaper in 1901. After several unsuccessful strips created in Chicago, King launched Bobby Make-Believe in 1915 and then his masterpiece, Gasoline Alley.

King's quiet and reality-based storylines and simple, design oriented art are among the best in the history of comic strips. His distinctive characters and often emotional storytelling gained the cartoonist a large and dedicated adult audience as his cast aged, and one generation replaced another, in Alley.

"Skeezix" was the baby word with which the orphan named himself after his adoption by Uncle Walt. As the most popular character in Alley, Skeezix is also an excellent example Of the strip's real-time approach to its continuity. Popular characters seldom age in strips, and almost never die. But Skeezix grew up, married, took over Uncle Walt's business, had his own children, and eventually attended Uncle Walt's funeral.

Today's popular For Better or Worse comic strip owes much of its storytelling style to both Skeezix and Frank King.

King died in 1969, but Alley was continued under different cartoonists.

Comic book appearances included: Gasoline Alley (1929, Reilly & Leo Publishers), Gasoline Alley (1959, Star Publications), Popular Comics (1936--'48, Dell), and Super Comics (1938-'49, Dell, #117 all Alley). An excellent selection was published in the Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics.

King's work is highly recommended. Some older comics are expensive and difficult to locate. Price guides or comics dealers help. Comics shops, conventions, mail order companies and trade journals are best sources. Prices vary; shop around.

Michael Vance

Family Strips - From 1999


Comic strips have derived much of their humor from the American family, particularly from the interaction of adults and children. George McManus's Bringing Up Father, Chic Young's Blondie and Mort Walker's Hi and Lois are among the many family strips that are part of American folklore.

As the structure of the family has changed, comic strips have reflected those changes. Widows and widowers were found in numerous older strips, but divorced parents were rare. Now they are featured prominently.

Brook McEldowney's 9 Chickweed Lane features a divorced biology professor, her adolescent daughter, and a crotchety grandmother. Fantasy is a frequent theme; the daughter, a would-be ballerina, sometimes dreams of being a butterfly or "Stupendous Girl". Her mother prefers a jungle fantasy in which she is "Panther Woman".



The supporting cast is small but effective, particularly Sister Caligula, the long suffering principal of the daughter's school. There are no reprint volumes and they are badly needed. The art is remarkably uncluttered.

Another new strip is Mark Tatulli's Heart of the City. Heart is a precocious child who fancies herself a reincarnation of Scarlett O'Hara from Gone with the Wind. The strip has tackled dilemmas facing modern families; e.g. attention deficit disorder and a working mother whose time at home is so limited that the babysitter is a rival for Heart's affection. This strip has vast potential as a blend of humor and pathos. Again, no reprints are available.



Fantasy is a key ingredient in Chickweed and Heart but this is not a new element in family comics. Pat Brady's Rose is Rose has been going for fifteen years and fantasy is an essential part of its charm.

There are three reprint volumes available. The latest, Rose is Rose 15th Anniversary Edition, shows how far Brady has come since the strip's creation. The Gumbo family's adventures are drawn in a dazzling variety of perspectives. Brady has to be one of the more creative comic strip artists of our time.

Reviewed by Dr. Jon Suter