Harold Gray was on the roll of all rolls during the period 1936-38 covered in this latest volume. The volume concludes with the initial portion of what is arguably Gray's best single story (actually, it's practically a comic-strip novel in terms of density and detail), the saga of Abigail Alden, Jack the truck-driver, the abandoned mother Rose Chance and her waif, the greedy Uriah Gudge, and the one-legged old salt Shanghai Peg. The best-known part of this epic was reprinted many years ago in THE SMITHSONIAN COLLECTION OF NEWSPAPER COMICS; this early installment allows us to settle in with the characters and really get to know them. Imagine a creator daring to do that in this era of stamp-sized panels and transparent gags -- as if it were even possible, of course. After several stories in which she is oddly passive, Annie returns to proactive mode as she helps the elderly Abigail stave off foreclosure and keeps the impromptu "family" in Alden's home operational. The only thing that seems fairly contrived about the story is the way in which Annie and Sandy wind up in Alden's town; just after completing another adventure, they are accidentally locked in the back of a truck and driven away. I suppose it could have happened, especially during the rail-hopping era of the Great Depression, but still, it seems a bit... unsubtle.
Gray was at such a compositional peak here that he manages to take what on the surface seem dreary plot notions -- Annie helps the down-on-her-luck flower-seller Ginger to fend off protection racketeers, Annie is adopted by a no-goodnik who wants to bump her off for insurance money -- and makes them interesting to read from beginning to end. The more fanciful side of Gray's creative genius also flowers as he introduces two of his best-known supporting players, the "omnipotent" Mr. Am (think a multi-million-year-old Santa Claus... with willing slaves) and the slithery Asp. Mr. Am would appear only infrequently in the future, and it's probably a good thing, as he basically possesses Godlike powers (or at least something close to infinite wisdom). Had he been used too often, he would have undercut the strip in the same manner that the all-powerful genie Shazzan cut short the plots in the Hanna-Barbera cartoon of the same name. The Asp is much more of a "keeper," of course, a more believable (and hence far creepier) "unsavory ally" for "Daddy" Warbucks than the magic-mongering giant Punjab. The Asp is sort of a sinister, Asiatic Cadbury, apparently possessing immense strength (e.g., handling huge portraits by holding one corner with two hands) and, no doubt, many other hidden abilities that we won't get to see until they are needed (or until The Asp regales Annie with tales of his previous service to Sir Ruddy Blighter).
Gray seems to have another potential fixture character in the person of Arunah Blade, the aged, proud occupant of a "haunted" house who apparently can commune with the spirit world and displays some of the traits of a master psychologist as he helps thwart the plans of con-artists Brittlewit and Blabble, the dastards behind the insurance plot. We are led to the brink of believing that the failures of many attempts to "off" Annie owe something to the timely intervention of ghosts (and yes, I did have something of an issue with that -- surprised, Joe?), but Blade's manipulation of the villains is what is most memorable here. I don't believe that Blade ever appeared again, however, which seems a shame. Here, Gray is definitely paralleling his friend Chester Gould in terms of playing "one-and-done" with a character who could have contributed to any number of additional stories.
In his introduction, Jeet Heer makes much of the darker tone of ANNIE during this period and speculates that Gray was (1) reacting to the increasingly dangerous world at large plus what, to him, was a disaster in the reelection of FDR, and (2) trying to compete with DICK TRACY's more violent aesthetic. This reasoning seems sound to me, though, despite the upped body count in these stories, the creepiest moment by far has nothing at all to do with violence or death. International criminal Boris Sirob and his two compadres pay for attempting to kill "Daddy" and extort riches from Mr. Am by turning into "man-apes" after getting a whiff of some mysterious, ancient substance that Am tricks them into investigating. There's a definite Raiders of the Lost Ark vibe going on here, but I'd guess that Sirob et al. would have preferred to have had their faces melted off than to have been left to live out mindless lives in the remote jungle.
Heer also includes a good discussion of the Western Sunday strip LITTLE JOE, which bore the signatures of Gray's assistants Ed and Robert Leffingwell but also featured plenty of direct input from Gray, especially in the 1930s and 1940s. The strip, which lasted until the early 1970s -- long after its "modern old-fashioned Western setting" had become almost as antiquated as the West featured in early silent movies -- was one of the best serious Western strips not based on "prepackaged" characters. I'd certainly like to see more of it, just as I'd like to see the run of the humorous Paul Murry and Dick Huemer strip BUCK O'RUE. Someone in Europe is working on the latter; perhaps IDW and Fantagraphics can pool their resources to put two strip collections into a single volume?? We kin only hope, pardner.