Friday, May 14, 2010

RIP, Frank and Annie

Frank Frazetta's death on Monday the 10th affected me only tangentially in terms of my comics interests. I only knew him as the guy who painted the barbarians and so forth. Then I looked at a COMICS JOURNAL interview from 1994 and found myself filled with a "strange new respect." Here was a strong conservative who nonetheless assisted Al Capp on LI'L ABNER during the strip's liberal phase and cooperated with Ralph Bakhshi on the feature film Fire and Ice (1983). I only wish that we had that sort of ideological "cross-pollination" today. Your subject matter may not have been my "cup of mead," Frank, but rest in peace.

Speaking of conservative comics icons, LITTLE ORPHAN ANNIE has been cancelled by Tribune Media Services. The last strip will run (in fewer than 20 newspapers -- think about that for a moment and sigh) on June 13. The irony, of course, is that ANNIE is now getting the full, "from-strip-one" reprint treatment, thanks to IDW Publishing and its superb LIBRARY OF AMERICAN COMICS.

In truth, Annie, Sandy, Warbucks et al. have been living on borrowed time since Harold Gray's death in 1968 and only managed to survive this long thanks to a few thick slabs of good old-fashioned luck. Consider:

(1) Between 1968 and 1974, the Tribune syndicate chewed up potential Gray heirs like Orson Welles buzzing through a Dagwood sandwich. David Lettick, one of the unfortunate souls who managed to snag the gig, drew terribly enough to be three decades ahead of his time. The Trib finally stopped the bleeding, at least for the moment, by rerunning old Gray strips for several years.

(2) Just when the novelty of the Gray reprints had begun to wear off, the musical version of Annie became a freak hit, prompting Leonard Starr to reboot the strip under the name ANNIE. The "gas fumes" supplied by the musical and the subsequent movie version of same -- coupled with the considerable talents of Starr -- bought the strip another couple of decades of life.

In 2000, writer Jay Maeder presided over yet another revamping of the strip, giving Annie a new wardrobe and an adult female sidekick who served as the Baloo to Annie's Kit Cloudkicker. (Better yet, imagine Baloo taking Gosalyn Mallard on as a partner.) I recall reading about this at the time and figuring that updating Annie into a streamlined, modern-day adventurer who could more easily "relate" to today's kids had at least a puncher's chance of being successful (or as successful as a modern, space-squeezed adventure strip could possibly be). Evidently, however, the strip became too simplistic, losing whatever adult audience it had retained from the old days, and proved unable to attract new, young readers. The eternal orphan has, at long last, been truly left alone... and the strip's current story line apparently won't even be officially resolved. I think Annie deserves better than that.

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