Saturday, March 27, 2010

Book Review: JACK KENT'S KING AROO, VOLUME 1 (IDW Publishing, 2010)

IDW Publishing's LIBRARY OF AMERICAN COMICS line has already made a considerable mark in the flourishing biz of classic comic-strip reprints, as readers of this blog are surely aware. Now their activities have risen to the nobler -- and, hopefully, just as remunerative -- level of performing a genuine public service. Jack Kent's whimsical fantasy strip KING AROO, which ran from 1950 to 1965 and enjoyed a small but very devoted following, has always sounded as if it were right up my (Hogan's) alley -- a cleverly written "intellectual" lark along the lines of KRAZY KAT, POGO, and BARNABY -- but, until IDW proffered this volume of the first two years of daily and Sunday strips, my total exposure to Kent's much-praised work consisted of a handful of daily strips reprinted in THE SMITHSONIAN COLLECTION OF NEWSPAPER COMICS and Ron Goulart's ENCYCLOPEDIA OF AMERICAN COMICS. A reprint volume appeared in 1953, but it apparently didn't sell well enough to warrant additional collections. Now IDW, armed with syndicate proofs and with the cooperation of Kent's heirs, is taking the not-inconsiderable gamble that the diminutive monarch of Myopia can be sold to 21st-century audiences. If there's any justice, its gamble will pay off.

Kent, who became a prolific author of children's books after shutting his AROO-gala down, was a self-taught artist with a profound respect for his fellow comics creators. He corresponded with such luminaries as Milton Caniff and George Herriman, receiving original artwork from each, and apparently had some dealings with Walt Kelly, turning down an opportunity to become Kelly's assistant on POGO (cf. Bruce Canwell's introductory essay in this volume). Kent's willingness to learn from the "masters" probably accounts for the fact that his strip arrives on the scene more or less "fully formed." Herriman took a while to develop KRAZY KAT from a sub-feature to another one of his strips into an independent feature; Kelly's POGO started in a comic book and likewise took some time to round into shape; but Kent, from day one, panel one, seems to know exactly what he is trying to accomplish insofar as humor style, approach to continuity (to wit: rambling with occasional lengthy diversions), and level of sophistication are concerned. His art style takes a little longer to mature; it looks a little stiff at the start, quickly mutates into something akin to Walt Kelly's style circa 1951 (albeit with supporting characters who look a bit more Herriman-esque, with their dot-eyes and invisible mouths), and finally settles into the pleasantly loose, semi-sketchy style that would serve Kent well for the rest of AROO's life. Modern comic-strip creators should be so fortunate as to be able to "ramp up" their new features so quickly. Usually, they're still trying to learn how to draw.

Unlike POGO (comic-strip version) and KRAZY KAT, KING AROO features a "mixed cast" of humans and animals. (Actually, King Aroo looks more like a cross between a human and a gerbil, but the other characters refer to him as human, so I'm not going to argue.) Aroo plays the Pogo role of the apparent innocent who is nonetheless (usually) aware of what is going on around him. His human factotum Yupyop -- who, strangely enough, gets co-billing with Aroo in the Sunday strips -- is more worldly-wise, though he does have his "drift-off" moments, such as when he decides to go into business saving damsels in distress. Aroo, for his part, is enamored with "The Beautiful Princess from the Kingdom Next Door," who, like all female humans appearing in this volume, is tall (comparatively speaking) with dot eyes and no appreciable nose. The expected crew of "fairy-tale" characters supporting the lead duo -- witches, dragons, goblins, ghosts, and whatnot -- all have endearing flaws. Wanda Witch's spells backfire more often than not, while Drexel Dragon (I wonder whether Kent got the idea of that name from here) has only limited control of his fire-breathing apparatus. Professor Yorgle, a creature of indeterminate origin who believes he knows everything but actually doesn't, is a cross between Ludwig von Drake and POGO's Howland Owl. There might even be a "shout-out" to the contemporary radio comedy Fibber McGee and Molly in the person (so to speak) of Mr. Pennipost, the kangaroo mailman with an apparently bottomless pouch (think Fibber's closet, not to mention the magic bag owned by the future version of Felix the Cat). As noted above, it doesn't take long at all for Kent to establish these characters' personalities and set them in full motion.

Kent's writing style is much more straightforward than that of Herriman or Kelly; he plays with words a lot, explores the "hidden meanings" of fairy-tale and nursery-rhyme cliches, and the like, but he generally steers clear of the "fenciful" word-wrangling of KRAZY KAT or the dialect-heavy speech that dominates POGO. He does use a couple of "walk-on" characters with accents, but I can't say that I'm overly impressed with what he does with them; the ingenuity of the "fractured French" patois used by his French poodle Genevieve, for example, does not measure up to that employed by Herriman's French poodle schoolteacher Mimi or Kelly's Miss Ma'amselle Hepzibah. Kelly's relatively straightforward approach makes it all the more mystifying to me why his strip wasn't more popular with a general audience. POGO, after all, appeared in several hundred papers at its peak and was much more of an "acquired taste" than I found AROO to be. The ultimate reason for AROO's obscurity may lie in the fact that Kent sold it to the McClure Newspaper Syndicate. McClure was the first syndicated feature service in American newspaper history, dating back to 1884, but, by 1950, it was on its last legs. McClure sold out to the Bell Syndicate in 1952, and Kent apparently had much more trouble dealing with Bell than with McClure. AROO would have gone under even earlier than it did had the SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE not pieced together a small-scale syndicate primarily devoted to keeping AROO afloat. Perhaps Kent should have considered several offers before casting his lot with McClure.

I'm certainly on board with this collection for the duration, and all praise to IDW for taking a chance on it in the first place. But I'm still waiting for that "official" LIBRARY OF AMERICAN COMICS Web site, guys. When is it going to launch?

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