Thursday, June 18, 2009

Book Review: HAROLD GRAY'S LITTLE ORPHAN ANNIE, Volume 3: AND A BLIND MAN SHALL LEAD THEM by Harold Gray (IDW Publishing, 2009)

Pay no attention to the blandly genial cover of this delayed third release in the ANNIE reprint series. The Great Depression bites down HARD during the course of a year-long continuity in which "Daddy" Warbucks, after losing both his fortune and his eyesight, endures a sad stretch as a patient in a hospital's charity ward and is even reduced to outright beggary before clawing his way back to the top. Meanwhile, Annie once again is forced to fend for herself, and her status is even more precarious than it had been in earlier spells of Warbucks-less-ness. Only the generosity of Maw Green, a crusty but kindly Irish landlady, and Jake, a Jewish shopkeeper, allow Annie and Sandy to maintain a knife's-edge existence in a dingy apartment where they are waiting for "Daddy" to return home from his attempts to find work. Things become even more complicated after a botched child-abduction drops a toddler on Annie's doorstep, and Annie is forced to care for the kid. (Actually, Sandy does most of the active babysitting while Annie is out helping in Jake's store. Can you imagine such a scenario coming close to passing editorial muster in this era of "helicopter parenting" and mandatory car safety seats?) This sequence clearly shows that Gray, for all his hyper-capitalist reputation, was well aware of the havoc that the Depression was wreaking on America and wasn't afraid to showcase the realities of the situation in his strip. Critics may carp at Gray's "naive" belief that optimism and a sense of renewed purpose would be enough to revivify the economy, but he certainly didn't ignore what was going on around him.

Towards the end of the Depression continuity, with Annie and a newly-flush "Daddy" reunited, the toddler Pat having been reunited with her parents, and Warbucks having regained his sight through the "convenient miracle" of a million-to-one operation, Gray permits Annie to sermonize a bit on how "organization" and the like is going to beat hard times. I find this interesting in that Roosevelt's New Deal, with its creation of a myriad of federal agencies, certainly contained plenty of "organization," yet Gray regarded it as anathema. Gray may have been referring here to Hoover's efforts to gin the economy in what many historians now regard as a precursor of the New Deal. Jeet Heer, in his introductory essay, misses this point entirely, falling back on the cliche that Hoover was "just another Calvin Coolidge" (not that that's a bad thing, mind you!). With the next volume containing strips from 1932 and 1933, it will be interesting to see how Gray's viewpoint changed as FDR's regime took hold.

Gray's use of a grab-bag of ethnic characters and "outcasts" also deserves more attention than Heer gives it in his article. Aside from Maw Green (whose ostensible Irishness isn't really on display here; it would become much more apparent in the later companion strip that ran under the ANNIE Sunday page for many years) and Jake, the dwarf Flop-House Bill becomes Warbucks' main ally during his fight to regain his empire. In the era of Tod Browning's Freaks and (a bit later) The Terror of Tiny Town and the Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz, the relatively straightforward portrayal of the hard-bitten, but decent and loyal, Bill is fairly remarkable. Bill rues his small status to the extent that he's convinced that, once Warbucks recovers his sight, the tycoon will jettison him. "Daddy," of course, does no such thing. Gray may have trafficked in the stereotypes of his time, but he didn't let the stereotypes define his characters.

The continuities that make up the first half of this volume, while strong enough, don't measure up to the Depression epic. After Gray diddles with the idea of giving Annie a boyfriend (thank God, he finally thought better of it) and does give her a new pet/companion in the form of a cute bear cub named Willie, Annie's tossed onto a country work farm, escapes the place only to get caught up in the midst of a devastating flood, is befriended by "old salt" Spike Marlin, and promptly gets marooned on what appears to be a South Seas island. (I say "appears" because, for the life of me, I can't see how Marlin's little boat could have made it from Middle America, no matter how badly flooded, to a palm-tree-bedecked, monkey-populated island in such a short time period.) The "Shipwrecked" continuity goes on a little too long (the length of time that it takes Annie and Spike's "message in a bottle" to reach the right hands is positively irritating) and strays into Gilligan's Island territory at times, but it's not bad; it's just not as good -- not to mention as relevant -- as the later Depression story. After both Spike and Annie have suffered illnesses that leave them all but "done fer," it's "Daddy" to the rescue. (Willie is later dispensed with in a single Sunday strip that sees him rather improbably reunited with his mother in a zoo; I don't know whether Gray was simply tired of drawing two animal companions for Annie or was consciously battening down the hatches for the upcoming Depression story by paring down the cast. Whatever the reason, it's a rather abrupt way to get rid of such a cute and likable character.)

In the front of the book, in addition to Heer's ongoing efforts to sanitize Gray and ANNIE for contemporary progressive consumption -- it must be working, or why else would Art Spiegelman be doing a blurb on the back cover of this volume? -- we get a brief article by Bruce Canwell on Annie's role as a trail-blazer for aggressive female characters in the comics and other popular media. Several examples of PRIVATE LIFE OF..., Gray's first attempt at a Sunday companion strip -- a clever, if repetitive, feature in which various inanimate objects such as potatoes, hats, and baseballs relate their "stories" -- are also included. All in all, this is a superb package that maintains IDW's quality standards. Hopefully, Volume 4 will not have to undergo a similarly long lacuna before its release.

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