Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Book Review: THE COMPLETE LITTLE ORPHAN ANNIE, Vol. 10: 1941-43 by Harold Gray (IDW Publishing, 2014)


For LITTLE ORPHAN ANNIE, World War II can be said to have "begun" in May 1942, when "Daddy" Warbucks, supposedly killed after leading a "mysterious" (and non-American) army aboard, suddenly returns stateside (albeit only temporarily).  The mere fact that Harold Gray doesn't perform any sort of buildup to the Prodigal Tycoon's latest comeback is the signal for a quickening of the strip's pace, as if Gray were trying to match America's rapid buildup for war.  Soon, "Colonel" Annie is performing her most noteworthy homefront service by organizing neighborhood children into the Junior Commandos.  The idea quickly spread to the real world and inspired thousands of children to mimic Annie and her compadres in collecting scrap metal and fats, keeping the perimeters around the homes of sleeping war workers quiet, and performing similar useful tasks.  While developing the JC's activities, Gray struck a brief but noteworthy blow for equal rights by devoting a Sunday page to a young black child's acceptance into the organization.  Jeet Heer's introduction to this latest collection of strips details the reader blowback -- both positive and negative -- that resulted from this departure.  Gray never used the black character again, which seems a shame.

Heer points out that making Annie the head of the Junior Commandos helped Gray get around the dilemma that, as a young girl, she couldn't imitate other comic-strip heroes of the era and join the armed forces.  Still, he couldn't help giving Annie opportunities to blow up the occasional marauding U-boat, culminating in a lengthy -- entirely too lengthy, to be honest -- early-1943 continuity in which Annie and her friends trap dozens of Nazis in a creepy, trap-ridden castle that wouldn't have seemed out of place in an episode of Scooby-Doo.  The similarity to Scooby is more than superficial, as the plot peters out into a series of repetitive confrontations with the Nazis.  (Thankfully, these are not accompanied by forced group laughs.)  The sag in storytelling acumen is matched by a sudden decline in the quality of the strip's art.  Heer speculates that Gray might have been feeling the emotional aftereffects of his father's death in a car crash.  Just as significant may have been a slight change in the dimensions of the daily strip, with panels elongating vertically and narrowing horizontally.  Suddenly, Gray shifts from his usual practice of drawing figures from the waist up to drawing full figures, and the change is not a fruitful one, especially since many of the new drawings are "shot from a distance."  Gray seems to have had problems with this perspective, as far too many of the adult human full figures frequently resemble peas awkwardly perched atop open ladders.

Gray's inability to corral the unwieldy castle sequence, coupled with renewed irritation at the inconveniences of wartime life, seem to have goaded him into doing a rethink.  The immediate future will see the return of more nakedly partisan material to the strip, culminating with the notorious "FDR is dead, so 'Daddy' Warbucks is alive" incident of 1945.  It can't be said that the cartoonist hadn't already done his bits for the war effort, though.

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