Saturday, October 8, 2011


Don't look back, IDW Publishing... in the realm of comic-strip reprintery, someone is in fact gaining on you (or, at the very least, maintaining a steady pace somewhere astern). Hermes Press has been publishing comic-strip reprint books and other pop culture treatises for some time now. While most of the stuff that Hermes has published has not been of particular interest to me, that state of affairs is quickly changing. Hermes plans to release the interminably delayed Walt Kelly biography sometime later this year, and a SMOKEY STOVER reprint collection was advertised in the latest PREVIEWS. Pride of "money-on-the-counter" place, however, goes to Miss Lace of Milton Caniff's MALE CALL. (I hope that came out sounding right.)

MALE CALL was 4-F cartoonist Caniff's morale- (and etc.-) boosting contribution to the war effort. These strips, printed in camp newspapers, originally starred the character Burma from TERRY AND THE PIRATES, but Caniff was forced to create a new starring siren after publishers of the real TERRY objected to the availability of an "alternative version" of the strip. Encounters with the sexy brunette Miss Lace (whose source of funds, "real" job, and so forth were a perpetual mystery) were the ultimate antidote to the loneliness and frustration experienced by Caniff's everyman GIs. A number of Caniff's gags have curled up and died of old age in the ensuing years, of course, but the panels are still great fun to look at, not least because Caniff had an unusual ability to draw both realistically and humorously at the same time. Miss Lace even quit the stage on occasion to make way for ruminations about adjustments to the postwar world or a series of "blackout-gag" drawings illustrating, say, new developments in ladies' homefront millinery. (I wonder whether Caniff, a well-known movie buff, was influenced in these latter strips by the "one-gag-on-a-theme-after-another" cartoons of "Tex" Avery.)

Despite my enjoyment of R.C. Harvey's biography of Caniff, I have previously had relatively little exposure to Caniff's actual work -- in particular, his way with words. I can see now why such respected critics as Coulton Waugh occasionally jabbed Milt for the heavy doses of "smart-aleck" in his dialogue. The fact that MISS LACE is chock-full of WWII-era military jargon only serves to emphasize Caniff's tendency to "overjazz" his dialogue here. Remember those later seasons of M*A*S*H, when characters refused to say a simple "Good Morning" when they could substitute something like "Salutations, Sleepy Sawbones!" instead? I felt like I got several full doses of that here. I'm not saying the dialogue is bad, mind you; the style simply takes some getting used to. It is also easy to see why the wisecracking approach that sustained Caniff so well during the 1930s and 1940s turned off so many people during the Vietnam era, when Caniff's STEVE CANYON began hemorrhaging readership.

Harvey's introduction cribs quite liberally from MEANWHILE..., but there are a number of choice goodies in the back of the volume: several "rejected" MALE CALL strips, plus a number of drawings of Miss Lace that Caniff did in the postwar years. (These later illos amply illustrate the literal "loosening" of censorial standards; in some of them, Miss L. comes perilously close to wearing bondage gear.) Hermes' production values do not reach the standards of IDW, at least not yet, but the content is quite definitely the thing in this case.

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