Saturday, August 10, 2013

Book Review: THE COMPLETE LITTLE ORPHAN ANNIE, VOL. 9: 1940-41 by Harold Gray (IDW/Library of American Comics, 2013)

As was the case with the latest DICK TRACY volume, unwelcome signs of editorial corner-cutting can be seen in the ninth ORPHAN ANNIE collection.  Jeet Heer's introductory essay is the only substantial "extra" we get here, apart from a couple of Al Capp parody strips on the inside back cover.  More significantly, the "My Most Recent Adventures" feature has been eliminated.  Given the meticulousness with which Harold Gray typically crafted his continuities, this represents a major omission.  It took me a short while before I could get back up to speed with the ongoing "Nick Gatt/Axel" story.  IDW really ought to consider restoring the "Last time..." features in future ANNIE and TRACY collections.

* SPOILERS *

Gray seems to be repeating himself just a tad as the 1940s begin and the world lurches into war.  Our "bullseye boy" for this volume's cover, the arrogant bandleader and movie star Pete La Plata (nee Bill Slagg), undergoes a thorough rehabilitation, just as Rose Chance's estranged husband Ace did during the "Shanghai Peg" storyline.  There is a moral catch, however; the change takes place as the result of a brain operation that clears up the aftereffects of a long-ago injury.  Therefore, Slagg's redemption cannot be considered to be a change of character so much as a change of a physical affliction affecting character.  In much the same manner, the surprisingly likable gangster Nick Gatt does good "by accident" when he determines to smash Axel's band of would-be revolutionaries.  Given that Gray generally takes a rather dim view of what one might call "professional" do-gooders, his inclusion of "goodness by stealth or accident" in the Gatt/Axel tale reflects a much more nuanced vision of good and evil than he is typically given credit for.  Matters moral are further muddled by Gray's introduction of the character of Sam the pants-presser, who is pretty clearly meant to be a Jewish refugee from Hitler's Europe -- and, Jeet Heer convincingly argues, is treated as something of a Christ-figure.  Sam even "sacrifices himself" by going back to Europe at the end of the Gatt/Axel story, presumably to help his people.  Given Gray's somewhat unorthodox religious views -- Heer describes him as a "deist" who was strongly affected by his membership in the Masonic order -- I probably shouldn't be surprised that his handling of moral issues here takes so many different forms.

I'd rate Nick Gatt as one of the most memorable figures in comic-strip history.  Significantly, Gray can't bear to show his eventual death on screen; his death during a gunfight with the police and would-be mob usurper Byron Bolo (who, ironically, is hailed as just the man to clean up the crooked Gatt operation by the usual "do-gooder" suspects) takes place between the end of a Sunday strip and the beginning of the following Monday strip.  Gray depicts numerous deaths and "disappearances" in this volume, so his decision not to show how Gatt died speaks volumes about his undeniable feelings for the character.

"Daddy" Warbucks returns from a tortuous stay in a foreign concentration camp (run by either the Germans or the Soviets -- at this time, remember, they were in cahoots) and immediately lives (back) up to his name by devoting his factories to military production in the name of "preparedness."  In doing this, Gray was obviously flying in the face of the isolationist sentiments trumpeted by his flagship paper, the CHICAGO TRIBUNE, but he also tweaked the New Dealers by having Warbucks ostentatiously refuse to profit from his work.  Warbucks must dodge several attempts at industrial sabotage, including one engineered by the bitter Pete La Plata, who nearly gets himself and "Daddy" killed before finally coming right thanks to the wonders of medical science.  With remarkable speed, Warbucks proceeds to make the rechristened Bill Slagg his right-hand man.  The volume closes with another rerun of sorts, this one of the "I'm trapped and I can't get out" variety, as Warbucks, Annie, and Punjab (disguised as an Indian guide) investigate strange goings-on at a Warbucks mine, only to be imprisoned in the mine's depths -- a scenario very similar to one seen early in the "Axel" story.  Gray's "Injuns" mimic most of his "ethnic" characters in that they are presented in a stereotyped manner (1941 natives with medicine men, tepees, the whole bit), yet are characterized with respect.  At one point, Warbucks comments that Indians, unlike white men, are almost always trustworthy.  If this is "condescension to the savages," then by all means, let's have more of it.

There are surprisingly few direct references to the war in this collection, but that will change soon as Annie becomes involved with the Junior Woodchucks, er, Commandos.  (I wonder whether Barks' choice of a name for the Nephews' scouting organization was affected by Gray in some manner.)  The strip remains a bulwark of solid storytelling and is well worth diving into even if you haven't sampled any of the earlier volumes. 

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