Thursday, February 19, 2009
This spring semester, while working out on the treadmill, I've been wading through the three volumes of Warner Bros.' superb collection of the POPEYE theatrical shorts. These releases have received almost universal praise, which they certainly deserve. Remasterings of the classic Max Fleischer and early Famous Studios shorts (how well I remember the cruddy colorized versions on TBS that represented my first exposure to these gems!), insightful commentaries by a variety of animators and animation historians, well-made "Popumentaries" telling the stories of Popeye and the Fleischers, AND extra features "From the Vault" tracing the early history of animation... these sets are filled with treasures. They have also served, I think, to "rehabilikate" Popeye as an animated character that one can actually take seriously. Now that we can see the B&W shorts as they were meant to be seen, we better understand how well the Fleischers had mastered the medium. As Leonard Maltin stated in OF MICE AND MAGIC, these cartoons create "their own kind of magic," one different from Disney's but every bit as viable.
Though I liked a lot of the Fleischer shorts, my favorite cartoon in these collections is actually an early Famous production, Seein' Red White & Blue (1943). For in-joke references and belly laughs, this stands up to anything Warners was producing during this period. In honor of the sailor man's 80th, I'm posting it here as my first attempt to upload a Youtube video. (Spoiler Warning: This cartoon contains Japanese stereotypes, so these easily offended may want to steer clear.)
Saturday, February 14, 2009
Friday, February 13, 2009
The latest TRACY volume opens with "Unholy Matrimony," unquestionably my least favorite Gould continuity (of those of which I'm aware, of course). Like the other continuities in this volume, I'd previously read the tale of Tess Trueheart's thwarted tie with batty ex-big-leaguer Edward Nuremoh in a Pacific Comic Club collection. I panned it when I reviewed it the first time, and, trust me, it hasn't improved on reacquaintance. Before "Matrimony" (as Max Allan Collins points out in his introduction to Volume 6), Gould hadn't used Tess in a major story in quite some time, so it made sense to train the spotlight on her -- but NOT in a melodramatic mishmosh that Jay Maeder accurately describes as "loony" and even Collins admits is "at times, ridiculously over the top." What's more, once Nuremoh's suicide has literally driven the traumatized Tess crazy, the poor girl remains in that state for an additional agonizing month, stumbling into a brief partnership with a crook who deals in stolen dogs (and I thought Nuremoh was a cad!). The whole mess ends with Tracy clearing Tess of a murder rap and the babe herself sprawled in a self-abasing position at her no-longer-ex-boyfriend's feet. And just think, the two still wouldn't get married for another decade.
Getting the Nuremoh nonsense out of his system appears to have caused Gould to do a major rethink. After restoring some manner of equilibrium with a brief and rather unmemorable continuity involving a crooked fur dealer, Gould brings back one of his strongest early villains, Stooge Viller, for a last bow. Yes, more melodrama ensues as Viller (who, predictably, refuses to reform, preferring to become a supplier to the underworld) desperately seeks to reconnect with his alienated daughter Binnie -- who inadvertently helps bring about Stooge's finish -- but tidying up this particular loose end appears to have cleared Gould's mind and reminded him where his strengths lay: in the depiction of strong criminal opponents for Tracy. Shortly after Viller's fall, midget crime boss Jerome Trohs and his obscenely fat and unnaturally strong "moll" Mamma (see, Joe, it didn't start with Little Lotta!) appear on the scene, presaging the onrushing era of classic Tracy grotesques. Trohs himself isn't exactly a grotesque -- apart from his size and his Harold Gray-style blank eyeballs, he's basically a conventional mobster -- but his use appears to have struck a spark of newfound creativity. It's significant that two of Tracy's next three foes are Yogee Yamma, a tricked-up mystical fakir, and Deafy, a dealer in stolen bicycle parts whose supposed handicap -- like The Blank, whose blank face was only a cheesecloth covering, Deafy hears just fine despite the hearing aid in his ear -- gives him his name. In between those encounters, Black Pearl, a vaguely sinister arms dealer, hints at the coming war and its own contributions to the Tracy "universe," such as enemy agents Pruneface and The Brow.
Regarding artwork, Collins correctly notes that 1940 sees the appearance of the "glossier, simpler, [and] stronger" art style that will carry TRACY through the war years and beyond. Actually, I'd date the first hints of this new, slicker style to the Jerome Trohs story, rather than the Yogee Yamma continuity. What happened here, I think, was the final disappearance of the Dick Moores influence that dated back to the mid-1930s. Moores' style of lettering stayed intact, but the elaborate, busy backgrounds that Moores designed for TRACY (and which can also be seen in JIM HARDY, his first syndicated strip) are somewhat simplified and scaled back, letting the characters in the foregrounds stand out more effectively. TRACY would never be the best-drawn adventure strip, but it was well on its way to becoming the most visually distinctive, save perhaps LITTLE ORPHAN ANNIE. (Speaking of which, guess whose likeness in doll form can be seen in Binnie's bed in the strip of 12/28/39?)
Monday, February 9, 2009
Book Review: HAROLD GRAY'S LITTLE ORPHAN ANNIE, Volume 2: THE DARKEST HOUR IS JUST BEFORE DAWN (IDW Publishing)
Volume 2 of the Harold Gray reprint parade brings us strips from 1927-1929, and, this time, a number of color Sunday pages are included. For a short period of time during 1928, Gray maintained his continuity in both dailies and Sundays before abandoning the practice with the strip of Dec. 30. A few years later, he would merge the two for good. Why he experimented in this way, I haven't the foggiest. Annie starts the volume in the company of Daddy Warbucks and reunites with him once before it's through, but not before Gray drags us all through the wringer by, first, getting Annie in bad with a bunch of train robbers (who stage a vengeful kidnapping after the spunky kid has doped out where they hid their stolen loot) and then dumping her back into nasty Miss Asthma's Orphans' Home for a long, painful spell, even as Warbucks is literally tearing the town apart trying to find her. The juxtaposition of Warbucks' frantic actions, Annie's spells of misery, and colossally unfunny Sunday-page gags in which Annie, purposely or otherwise, gives Miss Asthma grief is almost too much for the reader to bear. Gray eventually tires of this game and uses the convenient medium of a fire to (1) level the Orphans' Home, (2) wipe out any trace of Annie's pre-Orphans' Home history, and (3) literally force Annie and Daddy back together. Gray lets Annie rest on her hard-earned laurels for a while, then incapacitates Warbucks in a plane crash. Soon thereafter, Warbucks is off again trying to save his fortune, and Annie -- because she can't remember the name of the city hotel where the two were staying (!!!) -- is forced back into the "madding crowd." By volume's end, she's in the town of Blunderville with a kindly seamstress and playing more or less of a secondary role in a mini-drama of unwise stock-market speculation that's far too close to the contemporary headlines (read: The Crash of '29) for comfort.
During this period, Gray tackles the subject of "collective worker action" -- a future bugaboo of his -- for the first time and emits decidedly mixed signals. In the town of Mayfair, Annie gets a job as a waitress at a railroad beanery, then decides to strike as a result of unfair treatment. Gray doesn't seem to have a problem with this, perhaps because the strike was called by an individual in this case. When Warbucks later argues at great length with farmer Silo about the "farm situation" -- a major issue in the otherwise prosperous 20s, and one that Gray knew quite a bit about, since he came from a farming family -- Gray appears to be advocating, if not quite a farmers' union, then certainly more effective cooperation among farmers so that they can air their grievances more successfully. Gray then counterbalances these progressive touches with a Labor Day strip in which Annie makes a comment about small-town people being able to work when they care to, since no unions are involved. Gray's views on this subject would calcify soon enough once unions became an important part of the New Deal coalition, but, here, they're very much in flux. (By the bye, the long wrangle between Silo and Warbucks over farm policy definitely dispels any illusions that Gray meant for his strip to be read primarily by kids. The juvenile-friendly version of Annie that gained popularity on radio in the 1930s must have seemed almost like a completely different character to those deeply familiar with the progression of the comic strip.)
Jeet Heer's ongoing essay on Gray -- in this segment, he discusses the debts that Gray's storytelling style and themes owed to Charles Dickens -- continues to be interesting reading. A bonus of sorts is included in the form of a mock-serious summary of the continuities contained in Volume 1. The flippant tone ("They made a trapeze performer out of [Annie]. She really should have sent [her doll] Emily Marie in to perform. But she didn't. And the rope broke. And so did Annie's legs.") makes me wonder if this was meant to be a parody of Gray's habit of summarizing recent strip events in occasional "catch-up strips." If so, it was quite funny. If not, someone at IDW has a peculiar sense of humor.
Sunday, February 8, 2009
(L-R) Paul Maringelli, CEB, Mark Arnold, Jim Salicrup, Rick Parker, Angelo DeCesare
Jan. 15 was a bitterly-cold, zero-bright day up and down the East Coast. After I fulfilled my teaching duties (8-10 a.m. Stats class), Nicky and I, suitably bundled up, caught a midday train from Baltimore's Penn Station and trekked up to NYC's version of same. We ate lunch with Nicky's older sister Lisa and her little nanny-charge at an Irish-style "oyster pub" across from Lincoln Center and whiled away some time at the giant Barnes & Noble bookstore nearby before heading downtown to MoCCA's unpretentious office-building location on Lower Broadway. There, I found Mark and the MoCCA employees setting up for the panel. While waiting for others to arrive, I had a chance to look around the exhibit, which had enjoyed its original exposure at the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco. Items on display included original art from Harvey vets Ernie Colon, Sid Couchey, Howie Post, and Warren Kremer, various sorts of character merchandise (including some of the very nice Harvey maquettes produced by Electric Tiki), Harvey calendars distributed to store owners who handled the comics back in the day, and a monitor showing Famous Studios cartoons. I was pleased to see a big stack of Mark's compendium of THFT! columns and features on prominent display at the front desk. But who would be coming to (possibly) make purchases of same? Nicky and I had debated on the way down as to the type of crowd the panel would get. I knew that Mark had e-mailed many folks with the news, but, between the vagaries of the work week, the frigid weather, and the fact that the panel was being held after normal MoCCA operating hours, I didn't figure that the attendance would be that high. To my dismay, I learned soon after arriving that Colon, Post, and former Harvey art director Ken Selig had all had to beg off for various reasons. I knew that Couchey was already a "scratch" because he was visiting his son in (I believe) North Carolina. As things turned out, most of the attendees appeared to be MoCCA "regulars" -- not that there was anything wrong with that, but the general public so badly in need of Harvey "enlightenment" was conspicuous by its absence. Perhaps a sandwich-board sign posted outside the building announcing the panel would have helped?
Mark, Joe Torcivia, and I ducked out for a quick bite before going back upstairs. As the "crowd" trickled in, I got a rare change to have my ego massaged when I signed a copy of Mark's book. Then MoCCA's Jim Salicrup called the panel to order. Two former Harvey staffers -- Paul Maringelli and Angelo DeCesare -- were invited to "come on up" and join me, Mark, Jim, and Rick Parker. This made for a tight squeeze, as Paul was forced to sidle in next to me on the far left of the panel table. (My friend Mark Lungo later commented to me that it was rare for me to be on the far left of anything.) Nicky, who was sitting in back and taking occasional pictures, later told me that the guys filming the panel had a difficult time getting Paul in the frame with the rest of the panelists; usually, all that showed up were his waving hands. Those hands ending up waving quite a bit, as Paul turned out to be the most talkative of the "Harvey hands" regarding the old days at the company. Mark provided the "global" Harvey perspective, while I weighed in with observations from a fan's point of view. That is, when I got chances to speak. I've never been keen about interrupting other people's conversations, so that kind of inhibited me when it came to "breaking in" with a comment. It was all good, though, as I figured the audience would be better served hearing from people who worked for Harvey, as opposed to a guy who'd "merely" been a RICHIE RICH fan since 1975 and a columnist for THFT! since the early 90s. I did manage to point out that the RICHIE stories, in particular, contained more daring material (especially during the "James Bond" era of the 60s) than one might think feasible for a "children's comic." Witness a story like "The Fantastic Weapon," in which a kindly scientist is shot to death and dies on panel. If only Ernie Colon had been there to address the issue.
Yours truly, Mark Arnold, and Joe Torcivia
The panel lasted about 90 minutes. Afterwards, there was a reception, but Nicky and I had to catch a late train so that I could get back for Friday's classes. Joe also had to hit the road and accompanied us on the trip back to Penn.
It was a fun experience. Let's do it again sometime! (Or, at least, put out a sequel to the THFT! compendium volume. Eh, Mark?)