Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Book Review: HARVEY COMICS CLASSICS VOLUME 5, THE HARVEY GIRLS edited by Leslie Cabarga, introduction by Jerry Beck (Dark Horse Books, 2009)

According to editor Leslie Cabarga, this will be the last HARVEY COMICS CLASSICS release for the foreseeable future. Before getting on to the material at hand, I wanted to make sure to thank Leslie, Jerry, and the folks at Dark Horse for a reprint project that, while far from flawless, surely did well by the "Harvey World" standbys. Hopefully the hiatus is strictly due to the economy and new volumes will appear anon.

Volume 5 is, of necessity, a bit scrapbookish, covering as it does the early four-color careers of three characters, of whom one (Audrey) never crossed over to visit any of the other Harvey stars (at least, not until she got a brief -- and quite enjoyable -- opportunity to pair with Richie Rich in the early-80's title RICHIE RICH AND HIS GIRL FRIENDS). While Audrey had a respectable run, I can't help but think that had Steve Mufatti, Larz Bourne, et al. not showed such fidelity to the world of the cartoon shorts in the early AUDREY stories, the feisty kid might have used the extra "wiggle room" to squirm out of her neighborhood and into team-ups with Dot, Lotta, and others, which would probably have prolonged her active career. As it turned out, once Audrey's neighborhood gang (Melvin, Tiny, and Lucretia) was introduced, the AUDREY books basically became Harvey's hermetically sealed version of LITTLE LULU -- fitting, in light of the fact that Famous Studios created Audrey to replace Lulu when they lost the rights to the latter, but ultimately damaging to Aud's reputation as a formidable character in her own right. There's no doubt that the artwork of Mufatti and Howie Post has it all over Irving Tripp (John Stanley's main illustrator on the LULU stories) insofar as liveliness and charm goes, but, especially after Lucretia and her Annie-like buck tooth arrive on the scene, it's tough not to look at Audrey and not think immediately of Ms. Moppet and her cronies. Even the use of the supposedly "black" Tiny -- admittedly, a rather bold move for the 50s -- has to be qualified somewhat, as Tiny looks more like a crew-cut white kid colored black than, say, the more obvious black child Bumbazine that Walt Kelly drew for the earliest POGO comic-book stories. These stories are lively and fun and partake liberally of the charming atmosphere of Aud's better cartoons -- I especially enjoyed the "dreamed" South Pacific parody with Aud as a native girl and Melvin as "Safety Pinsa" (get it?) -- but the aura of "knockoff" will always linger, and that's a real shame.

The volume's true revelation, from my point of view, are the earliest LITTLE DOT stories, in which Steve Mufatti does a complete makeover on the not-very-inspired character of the same name who had been a backup feature in SAD SACK for several years. Insofar as Mufatti was a major artistic influence on Warren Kremer, this relaunch was one of the key moments in the development of the "Harvey World" style. In his introduction, Jerry Beck describes Mufatti's artwork as "slightly anachronistic, recalling late 1920s and early 1930s cartooning." On the contrary -- though a guy who was supposedly born in 1880 and therefore would have been over 70 at the time he drew these stories, Mufatti was right on the cutting edge of kids' comics of the day. The early Dot is simply adorable (though Mufatti takes a story or two to settle on giving her one ponytail instead of two) without being "cutesy" in the slightest. Conspicuous by its absence in these opening salvos is the "dot obsession" that would come to define Dot's character in future years. According to "Alphabet Land," Dot's sort-of-origin story in LITTLE DOT #5, she didn't even originally have dots on her dress. "Pop Goes the Measles" (LD #13) is the first story in which Dot shows any unusual interest in dots at all, and there, she's merely marveling over the fact that she's developed a case of ultra-rare "black measles." Like several other early stories, "Measles" takes the form of a "tall story" that Dot tells to her friend Lotta and her soon-to-be-dropped friend Red. This is definitely Lulu territory, and I get the sense that Bourne and the other writers may have been scuffling to distinguish Dot from Audrey in a way other than the fact that she has scads of oddball uncles and aunts dropping in at all times. (Some of these early "relative adventures," such as the ones with mountain-climbing Uncle Alp, wire-walking Uncle Balance, and lion-taming Uncle Fang, start with Dot being all but shanghaied by her compulsive clansfolk.) By issue #16, Dot is trying to convince a bandleader to put dots on uniforms and dreaming of becoming "Queen of Dot-Land," and it's all downhill (rolling, naturally, since these are round objects we're talking about) from there. Stories by Sid Couchey, the artist most associated with Dot (and Lotta), appear at the tail end of the Dot section, but they're not from his prime period, in which Dot occasionally got to participate in stories extending beyond five pages. I would've liked to have seen "Dot's Rock & Roll Adventure," for example. Alas, Jerry and Leslie cut off their material at 1962.

Little Lotta runs the anchor leg of the volume, and, apart from being slightly smaller in bulk in the early days, she arrives on the scene pretty much fully-developed (stow the jokes about overeating, if you please!). There's no question in my mind that the fateful decision to allow Dot and Lotta to be pals (which they are from the very start, in LD #1's "Show Business") helped prolong the ladies' careers. A lot of the early LOTTA stories seem a little too willing to resort to the somewhat lazy "Lotta dreams up an adventure" gambit, but more fruitful developments, such as the introduction of Lotta's pint-sized boyfriend Gerald and her lively, irrepressible Grandpa -- for all intents and purposes, the "Harvey World"'s version of Poopdeck Pappy, and easily worth any two dozen of Dot's carload of uncles and aunts -- presage a career that, like Dot's and Audrey's, proved more than respectable. Like Dark Horse's fine LITTLE LULU volumes, this is an ideal collection to give a young girl who might be interested in comics, but, as Jerry Beck correctly notes, these stories will be enjoyable to readers of all predilections... not to mention both genders.

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