Saturday, June 16, 2012

Book Review: HAROLD GRAY'S LITTLE ORPHAN ANNIE, VOLUME 8: 1938-40 (IDW Publishing/Library of American Comics, 2012)

It's well nigh impossible to argue the point that Harold Gray and his comic strip reached a creative and imaginative peak of sorts in the late 1930s.  The "Saga of Abigail Alden, Shanghai Peg...  and The Rest," which wraps up in this volume, is considered by many to be Gray's best single narrative, but that's only part of the story.  In the triumphant wake of the Alden affair, Gray, who evidently felt himself to be on a roll, comes up with not one, but two memorable antagonistic characters to drive the next sequence of related stories, which will take us up through the middle of 1940 (and the early portion of the upcoming Volume 9).  This is particularly noteworthy in that Gray, as skilled as he was at creating both permanent allies ("Daddy" Warbucks, Punjab, The Asp) and well-rounded one-time friends and acquaintances for Annie, had never before proven capable of emulating his longtime friend Chester Gould and putting Annie up against a really strong bad guy, one capable of maintaining the threat level for an extended period of time.  Crooked businessmen and politicians, bullies, minor mobsters, shyster lawyers, and so forth were fine insofar as putting Annie in temporary danger was concerned, but the sinister, vaguely European Axel, who begins to pursue Annie immediately upon the conclusion of the Alden saga, would become more or less of a fixture in the strip for the better part of two years.  And he isn't even the more intriguing or multifaceted of this issue's duo of memorable baddies.

Axel, with his more "global" conception of skullduggery, was clearly Gray's response to the deteriorating situation in Europe at the time, but the bearded villain's nationality and ideology would prove to be remarkably flexible.  After Axel's initial attempt to kidnap Annie and use her to squeeze money out of "Daddy" Warbucks is foiled by "Daddy" et al.'s dramatic return and rescue, he falls out of sight for a short time, only to return with a far more comprehensively evil agenda.  By early 1940, he's scheming with a bunch of cohorts with "Slavic" names to spring a coup on an unsuspecting America.  The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact evidently gave Gray the excuse he needed (not that he really needed that much of an excuse) to turn Axel into a boring (as in termite, not Ben Stein) Marxist.  America still had a strong isolationist movement at the time of the second Axel story, and Gray was working for a syndicate headed up by the uber-isolationist CHICAGO TRIBUNE, but the artist clearly intended this plot point to be a wake-up call of sorts, warning Americans to be prepared for whatever the warring world might bring to its doorstep. 

Axel resurfaces during a lengthy story that finds Annie in the home of John Tecum, a bright young lawyer ("Daddy" having disappeared almost as quickly as he had reappeared), and introduces the second of this volume's memorable adversaries -- one that clearly illustrates the degree to which Gray's concepts of law, order, and justice differed from those of Chester Gould's.  While attempting to get justice for an elderly couple who'd been victimized by one of Gray's noxious political fixers, Tecum becomes ensnared in the coils of rotund gang boss Nick Gatt.  Gould would surely have run Gatt up against Dick Tracy in short order (not to mention given Gatt some strange physical tic or feature), but the more Gatt appears in Gray's narrative, the more likable he becomes.  Soon Gatt has manipulated things so that the bewildered Tecum has become district attorney on a platform to clean up corruption in the town -- which all "good citizens" assume will include Gatt himself.  The volume concludes just as Axel has returned and taken a shot at Annie -- only to be greeted with return fire from Gatt, whom Annie has gotten to like and trust.  A Gatt vs. Axel battle is clearly on the horizon, and, as Jeet Heer notes in his introduction, Gray clearly believes that homegrown gang bosses are infinitely preferable to totalitarian schemers.  Even before Axel's resurfacing, however, Gatt was already busily engaged in setting up events with no apparent benefit to himself -- rather the opposite, in fact.  So what was Gray's larger point here?  That gangsters can be good guys and yet still exert some sort of control of events?  I would have loved to have been the proverbial "fly on the wall" as Gray tried to "explain" Gatt to his buddy Gould.  My own take is that Gatt was simply another manifestation of Gray's core belief that extra-legal means are sometimes necessary and justified to produce "cosmic justice."  If Punjab can wave a magic cape over a bad guy and make him vanish with no cop or judge being the wiser, then certainly Gatt can provide the "muscle" that a town needs to fight off a sinister, un-American threat.  Gatt is probably the definitive proof that Gray's supposedly "simple-minded," black-and-white sense of right and wrong was far more complex than his critics would care to admit... and that, by 1940, LITTLE ORPHAN ANNIE had become, and would remain, a comic strip for adults.

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