Sunday, April 26, 2009

Book Review: BOODY: THE BIZARRE COMICS OF "BOODY" ROGERS by Gordon "Boody" Rogers, edited by Craig Yoe (Fantagraphics Press, 2009)

The roiling, anything-goes "Golden Age of Comics" is best known for introducing and developing the superhero genre, but the medium was so fluid at that time that literally any sort of subject matter was fair game, provided that audiences liked it. Humor comics flourished in the years after World War II, and, in their zeal to get readers' attention, publishers weren't averse to taking walks on the weird, wild side and employing stylists whose over-the-top gags and broad drawing styles would probably not have passed muster in the more cautious post-Comics Code days. Basil Wolverton (POWERHOUSE PEPPER) is probably the best known of these genial nutcases. This volume introduces modern readers to a second likable loony: Gordon "Boody" Rogers. Of this gentleman, I previously knew only that he created Sparky Watts, the first true parody of Superman, and was the leading assistant to Zack Mosely on the comic strip SMILIN' JACK. After digesting this brief collection of examples of each of Rogers' major features -- and "major" is stretching things some, given that even Sparky Watts had a career that lasted less than a decade and was interrupted due to Rogers' service in World War II -- a few additional questions have been answered, at least... but not enough to give this volume the high rating it otherwise might have merited.

One reviewer of BOODY strafed editor Craig Yoe for a fanboyishly dizzy introduction that gave Rogers' biography short shrift -- a bit of a surprise considering Yoe's obvious enthusiasm for Rogers' work and self-proclaimed diligence at digging up data. (I myself picked up at least one error of fact: Carl Ed was the creator of HAROLD TEEN, not SMITTY, which was drawn by Walter Berndt.) At the very least, we should have been provided with a basic bibliography of Rogers' comic-book work. Unfortunately, sloppy, breathless writing is the least of Yoe's sins here. Take Sparky Watts, the bespectacled, casually dressed mock superhero... who is featured in several stories herein but does not get a chance to perform any superheroics. I'd call that a major omission, wouldn't you? Instead, we get to see him lose his mysterious powers and shrink (!) due to the wearing-off of the "cosmic rays" that are the source of whatever abilities he may happen to possess. The resulting antics are funny -- ant-sized Sparky survives encounters with some truly bizarre insect life and barely avoids getting married to a two-headed, half-bug-half-babe (would I make this up?) -- but c'mon, Craig, surely we could have been treated to at least one little fantastic feat, in order to give the un-powered Sparky's adventures in bug-land a little more context? The last SPARKY story, a two-parter, features Sparky and his pal Slap Happy in a supporting role to two pairs of animate legs and feet who fall in love and get married. Sparky and Slap might just as well have been Sam and Silo (cf. my previous review) for all they contributed to this story. If Fantagraphics wants to follow up this collection with another bundle of "Boody" boodle, I have a mild suggestion: publish a volume devoted entirely to Sparky, so that we can actually see what makes him tick, as opposed to getting ticked off at not finding out more about the character.

The volume does a little better by BABE, "The Amazon of the Ozarks," whose origin story and its follow-up appear herein. Unfortunately, the two stories are split up at opposite ends of the book and really should have been printed back-to-back. The influence of LI'L ABNER on this fanciful scenario of a female hillbilly who's part super-athlete and part "eternal innocent" is obvious, but Rogers' Ozark setting is far weirder than Al Capp's ever was, including, among other things, a "table mountain" that's home to a group of male centaurs who get their kicks by racing comely females as if they were horses. This scenario is disturbing enough, but just as skin-crawling is the brief tale in which Babe performs as a female wrestler and has her neck broken. She spends the last page or so of the story with her head canted back at an impossible angle -- and no, there's no deus ex machina to make it all better at story's end. The reader apparently had to assume that Babe's neck would heal up by the time the next issue appeared (and since this only appeared in issue #4 of an 11-issue run, at least she got the chance to recover!).

A few additional stories from a teenage comic, DUDLEY, are thrown in to help the volume make weight, though additional SPARKY WATTS stories would probably have been a better choice. The DUDLEY story, chock full of antiquated "hepcat" slang, is pretty lively and amusing, though nowhere is it made clear exactly which of the characters is Dudley. It's reasonably easy to figure it out in context, but, to me, it's another example of careless editing. JASPER FUDD, a "filler" story about a clod-hopper country boy who doubles as an inexplicably fast cross-country runner, is the most "normal" story in the issue, and, as such, is the story that should probably have been chucked in favor of more zany fare.

Rogers left comics after 1950, and probably just in time; though there's nothing truly offensive herein, his extreme caricatures, "scary" creatures, and occasional forays into realms of "iffy" taste (cf. the BABE story in which a famous actor cross-dresses and escapes to Babe's town to dodge his adoring fans) would have been a much harder sell after the Comics Code crackdown. I liked this material enough to want to see more of it -- and, apparently, a few of Rogers' others stories have been posted on the Web, so I may go hunting for them -- but the next Rogers collection should receive somewhat soberer treatment, at least when it comes to ancillary material.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Book Review: SAM'S STRIP by Mort Walker and Jerry Dumas (Fantagraphics Press, 2009)

There's a reason why "conventional wisdom" is called "conventional" -- more often than not, it's passed the test of time and is sound. Sometimes, however, "conventional wisdom" takes on a life of its own and oversimplifies a situation that is really much more complicated than is commonly believed. Such appears to be the case with SAM'S STRIP, a short-lived but ingenious early-60s comic strip by Mort Walker and Jerry Dumas that, according to EVERY comment about it that I have ever read, prominently featured past comics characters doing constant "guest shots," yakking it up with the strip's protagonists (the bulb-nosed, apparently neckless Sam and his skinny, bespectacled, nameless sidekick/assistant), being feted at "comics characters' conventions," etc., etc. Well, this slender volume reprints the strip's entire run, and... remember what I said about "conventional wisdom"? The "comic about comics" (so claims this book's subtitle) did give other denizens of the funny papers a chance to "slum it" in Dumas' bare panels, but that conceit was only a small part of the fun. In fact, Walker and Dumas' inability to, in the immortal (albeit somewhat paraphrased) words of Gadget Hackwrench, "choose a thing... one thing... and stick with it" may be the reason why this witty, engaging effort never found an audience and ultimately died after a year and a half.

The core idea of SAM'S STRIP is that Sam and "Silo" (who'd get that name in a later Walker-Dumas strip that resurrected the characters but otherwise bore little resemblance to the original) are proprietors of their strip and engage in near-incessant "fourth-wall" breaking and ruminations about the ups and downs of running a panelological concern. They have closets full of punctuation marks and cartoon props, debate about the appropriate format for the strip (with the somewhat egotistical Sam usually having the more inflated notions of what the subject matter should be), and are constantly aware of their pen-and-ink insistence. For the early 1960s, this was high-concept indeed. It was only natural that Walker and Dumas should get the idea of featuring other characters in walk-on roles, though they did usually play it safe by employing fellow King Features characters (Blondie, Krazy Kat and Ignatz, Popeye) or figures who had long since vanished from the scene (with Fred Opper's Happy Hooligan -- whose attempts to "crash" the strip became a running gag -- getting the most "mug time"). On several glorious occasions, Walker and Dumas trotted out a big-league cameo, as when Sam sees Charlie Brown driving by (!) and muses, "I knew having that big automobile account [i.e. the PEANUTS Ford Falcon franchise] would change that kid." The problem was that the creators didn't use these inter-strip get-togethers nearly as much as they should have. Instead, they whiled away a lot of their time with politically themed, time-dependent gags trading on the "New Frontier" administration of John Kennedy and the contemporary Cold War atmosphere. There's even a diabolically obscure reference to Vaughn Meader, the comedian who had 15 minutes of fame because of his uncanny vocal imitation of JFK. At various times, Sam identified as a Republican (when he and "Silo" discuss a good GOP candidate for 1964, "Silo" suggests Walt Disney -- who definitely had the right ideology!) and "Silo" as a Democrat. A casual reader who stumbled upon the strip one day and assumed it was some kind of politically-charged strip a la POGO could be excused for the mistake. These Cold War gags not only date the strip to a certain extent, they also detract from the strip's "primary mission," i.e. its "meta-comical" explorations and those delightful crossover visits. Perhaps Mort and Jerry had trouble thinking up enough self-referential gags to fill six days' worth of strips each week (the strip never had a Sunday page); if so, more's the pity.

SAM'S STRIP is definitely worth getting if you're a serious comics fan, or someone with an interest in the Kennedy era in general. The fact that I can logically recommend the volume to both groups, however, only points up how blurred the strip's focus could be at times. It's a highly fascinating misfire, but, I'm afraid, a misfire nonetheless.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Harry Kalas : Outta Here

I was planning on posting a book review tonight but decided instead to put up a tribute to Harry Kalas, the longtime Phillies' broadcaster who died this afternoon. I distinctly remember seeing Harry's first game in Philly (it was the first game at Veterans Stadium in 1971) and of course have many fond memories of the repartee he had with Richie "Whitey" Ashburn, who passed away about ten years ago.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Book Review: WHEN MARCH WENT MAD by Seth Davis (Times Books, 2009)

It was inevitable that someone would get the bright idea of commemorating the 30th anniversary of the "Magic" Johnson-Larry Bird showdown in the NCAA championship game with a full-length book. What was not inevitable was that said book -- written by one of CBS' college hoops studio's talking heads, no less -- would turn out to be of such high quality. Seth Davis does an excellent job of painting the background scenery of the title clash between Michigan State and Indiana State, focusing (of course) on Johnson and Bird but not neglecting the other main characters, such as the opposing coaches -- MSU's gruff, sarcastic Jud Heathcote and ISU's country-bred Bill Hodges, who assumed the head-coaching position after the previous coach had fallen ill. The postscript is a little lengthier that one might expect but closes appropriately with Bird, that most reticent of superstars, returning to ISU many years after his great career to have his uniform number retired.

When it came to talking about the championship game itself -- to this day, STILL the most watched basketball game in history -- Davis was faced with a dilemma: The game itself wasn't that good. MSU dominated pretty much from the off, with ISU staging only one mild rally in the second half, and Bird, bothered by MSU's tough zone, experienced a terrible shooting night. In point of fact, the only really good game that Final Four weekend in Salt Lake City (not counting the meaningless third-place game, which would be discontinued two years later) was the semifinal game between ISU and Ray Meyer's DePaul.  Meyer, the venerable, beloved coach whose quest for a national title was a main object of national attention during the late 70s and early 80s, was just as big a story that weekend as "Magic" and Bird. Ditto Penn, the fourth Final Four participant and only the second Ivy League team ever to make it that far. If I have a quarrel with Davis' approach to the Final Four games, it is that he didn't make it clear exactly how big of a deal these other stories were. Unfortunately for Penn, after being blown out by MSU in the other semifinal matchup, their amazing achievement (which included a win over #1 seed North Carolina in Raleigh) was blown right out of the water by the foofaraw over the "Magic"-Bird confrontation. It's probably unfair to criticize Davis for what he did not attempt, but surely Meyer and Penn contributed more than a mite to the excitement of that weekend.

I encourage Davis to put down the mike more often and write additional stories about the history of college hoops. This first effort is well worth reading.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Down to Net-Cutting Time...

... and here are my Final Four PICKS OF DOOM:

Semifinals: Connecticut over Michigan State, North Carolina over Villanova
Final: Carolina over UConn

I can't see any compelling reason NOT to expect the top two teams left standing to duke it out on Monday night. Given that assumption, I like UNC by a slight margin thanks to the duo of Hansbrough and Lawson.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Book Review: THE COMPLETE PEANUTS 1971-72 by Charles M. Schulz (Fantagraphics, 2009)

I wouldn't go so far as to accuse Fantagraphics of misrepresentation, but... the heavy "Sally focus" promised on this volume's dust jacket (and teased by the preliminary interview with actress Kristin Chenoweth, who played Sally in the late-90s revival of YOU'RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN) can only be considered a minor theme in this latest collection. Sure, Sally is now a fully-paid-up cast member complete with enough hangups and neuroses to keep a platoon of shrinks occupied for an indefinite period of time, but there are far deeper doings afoot than her struggles in school. Heck, she isn't even "Sweet Babboo"-ing Linus just yet. No, it's Charlie Brown and Peppermint Patty who provide this volume's most memorable and poignant moments. Schulz may have made conscious efforts to be more "relevant" during this riotously incoherent cultural era, but the rock-solid virtues that had built PEANUTS' massive audience are still very much in evidence, above all Schulz' gift for characterization.

Peppermint Patty and her cast of friends -- Roy, Franklin, and, starting in the summer of 1971, Marcie -- are now established as regular players, albeit in a neighborhood that seems to be somewhat removed from the "classic" PEANUTS neighborhood. (Whenever Patty wants to get together with Charlie & co. for some reason, she still either has to meet him at camp or call him on the phone.) As pages flick by, however, Patty and Charlie begin to appear together more and more often, and their relationship begins to turn into something very unique and touching, reflecting the growing complexity in Patty's personality. Patty veers between exasperation at Charlie's inevitable gaffes, inadvertent disparagement (as during the classic game of "Ha Ha Herman!"), intrigue at the possibilities inherent in his presence ("you touched my hand, you sly dog!"), and, most painful of all, realization that she carries certain burdens that, while they are not as heavy as Charlie's, make the two of them kindred spirits of sorts. When Charlie tactlessly mentions the Little Red-Haired Girl during a trip to a carnival (a sequence that, while I don't believe it was ever reprinted in book form, did appear as part of the 1972 feature film Snoopy Come Home), Patty stalks off in disgust. During a later trip to camp, though, Patty actually sees Charlie's would-be girlfriend and is overcome by sudden self-loathing. The long series of "treeside conversations" between Patty and Charlie commences, with each struggling to communicate deep feelings with decidedly mixed success. It is during this period, too, that Patty begins to clash with authority figures, including a run-in with the school administration over the dress code. The carefree, swaggering Patty of the late 60s is no more. Welcome to the psychological jungle, kid.

Speaking of well-developed characters, Snoopy continues to score plenty of memorable moments, though "Joe Cool" -- this era's attempt to hatch lightning from the same bottle from which Schulz had earlier decanted "The World War I Flying Ace" -- hasn't aged that well. Snoopy and Woodstock's quest to meet Miss Helen Sweetstory of "Six Bunny-Wunnies" fame (a fame that doesn't prevent one of her hippy-dippier, oh-so-early-70s tomes from being banned by the school board), Snoopy's attempt to read WAR AND PEACE one word at a time, and the migratory trip that leads ol' Snoop to the "six-story parking garage" that has displaced the Daisy Hill Puppy Farm are much more memorable. Linus rates a moment of triumph when, attempting to go "cold turkey" with his blanket once and for all by giving it to Snoopy for (chuckle) safekeeping, he actually succeeds -- until, alas, Charlie Brown takes pity on him and gets him "hooked again" with a new yard of outing flannel. Linus and Lucy's baby brother Rerun Van Pelt is, uh, sort of introduced herein -- he won't actually appear on panel for a while and won't become a major cast member until much later -- and, yes, even Sally does star in some of her most memorable gags (including the classic "I got a C in coat-hanger sculpture?" gag, which was probably clipped and saved by many, many art teachers back in the day). Take it from me, however, Charlie and Patty are the characters whose trials and tribulations will stick with you this time around.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Four for Final Four!

Hey, I got my Final Four picks right! Well, all but the "Elite 8" pick of Missouri over Memphis, that is. I still had UConn coming out of that region regardless. The MSU-over-Louisville pick turned out even better than I expected. Ditto Villanova-over-Pitt, though it took a soon-to-be-legendary court-length drive to make it happen. Can I keep the beat going in the Final Four itself? Check in at week's end for my picks.

Scarpa's Offer, They COULD Refuse.

I've received some clarification from the individual who originally posted on YouTube the Romano Scarpa DuckTales clip that I posted a few days ago. Evidently, the 1988 date is somewhat misleading; this piece was produced BEFORE production on the original series got fully underway. Scarpa and whatever outfit he was working for/with were trying to convince Walt Disney TV Animation to hire them to make episodes. The studios in Japan and Korea had the inside track, though... no big surprise.