Saturday, December 27, 2014

Book Review: FUNNYBOOKS by Michael Barrier (University of California Press, 2014)

What Michael Barrier did for the history of classic Hollywood studio animation in HOLLYWOOD CARTOONS, he does here for the golden years of Dell Comics and its most accomplished and historically significant creators -- Walt Kelly, John Stanley, and, above all, Carl Barks.  While devoting most of his critical attention to this trio of greats and the ways in which they helped shape the development of the American comic book into an art form with its own distinct verbal and visual language, Barrier also unearths facts and highlights overlooked personalities in a manner that is sure to surprise and delight even the most knowledgeable Dell/Western Publishing fan.

As was the case with HOLLYWOOD CARTOONS, FUNNYBOOKS had an extremely long gestation period, with Barrier using interview material from as far back as the 1960s to help craft his narrative.  Barrier also draws upon material used in his 1981 book-length study of Carl Barks, but he expands greatly upon that earlier work.  Perhaps his most important critical achievement here is his in-depth illumination of exactly how Barks, who famously worked in isolation and with minimal (at first) editorial interference, became one of the very first comics creators to "crack the code" and essentially discover how to tell effective stories in comic-book form.  Barks fans have always known of the Old Duck Man's mastery of narrative, but they will come away from this discussion with a newfound appreciation of the wider importance of his work.

Barrier pretty clearly considers Barks to be primus inter pares even among the "really good ones," but Kelly and Stanley get their due and then some.  Kelly's creation and development of the POGO characters is covered in detail, as is Stanley's work on LITTLE LULU, but Barrier brings their other notable comic-book works (e.g., Kelly's stories for OUR GANG and his fairy-tale and Christmas comics, Stanley's honing of his craft in NEW FUNNIES) under similar critical scrutiny.  As was made quite clear in HOLLYWOOD CARTOONS, Barrier is a very astringent analyst, and it takes quite a lot for a story to wring praise out of him.  Everyone who knows these creators will probably disagree with Barrier's assessments at some point -- for example, I think that he is much too harsh on Barks' more loosely-wound, but still immensely entertaining, UNCLE $CROOGE stories from the 1960s -- but he always has a well-considered reason for his opinions.

The "extra material" here is what really lifts FUNNYBOOKS to "instant classic" status.  Anyone who has ever wondered about the precise relationships between the various corporate subsidiaries and allies grouped under the spreadeagled "Western Publishing" umbrella -- Whitman, K.K. Publications, Dell, Gold Key -- will have any and all questions answered to their satisfaction here.  Interested in the early history of LOONEY TUNES AND MERRIE MELODIES, the Warner Bros. "answer" to WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES, or in how Dell handled such significant "non-funny-animal" licensed properties as TARZAN and various movie cowboy heroes?  You'll learn about some of these comics' most accomplished writers and artists here.  Perhaps the biggest surprise is a brief discussion of "the Jim Davis shop," an association of artists who produced "funny-animal" challenges, of a sort, to Dell's humorous hegemony for the notorious comics entrepreneur Benjamin Sangor.  It's nice to see the exquisitely obscure characters that came out of this outfit get some recognition, even if Barrier's primary purpose for bringing them up is to demonstrate how their comics failed while the best of Dell's succeeded.

If I have a small nitpick here, it is with Barrier's comparatively brusque brushing-aside of the Gold Key era.  Yes, that era did see ill-considered format and price changes and increasing editorial restrictions, but there was a whole lot of high-quality material being produced at that time, as well.  (See Joe Torcivia's 50th Anniversary tribute for numerous examples.)  I fully realize that Barrier's intention was always to focus on the years before the Dell/Western split, but a few extra pages discussing some of the GK highlights couldn't have hurt.  Anyone want to pick up the bracketed torch (as opposed to fallen; it's not as if Barrier failed, after all) and try writing a sequel?

So, what are you waiting for?  If you care at all about the Dell Comics that truly WERE "Good Comics," or simply about the history of quality comics in general, FUNNYBOOKS virtually defines the term "MUST-GET."

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