Saturday, June 5, 2010

Book Review: THE COMPLETE LITTLE ORPHAN ANNIE, Volume 5: THE ONE-WAY ROAD TO JUSTICE by Harold Gray (IDW Publishing, 2010)

Who's the bigger villain -- a ruthless con artist, jewel robber and gang boss, or a smoothly-operating, utterly amoral exploiter of an orphan and a blind man? The question dominates this collection of ANNIE strips, which takes us from the Summer of 1933 through the first month of 1935. We also catch the first glimpse of Harold Gray's antipathy towards the New Deal, with "Daddy" Warbucks being sent to jail on trumped-up charges in what has long been interpreted as a direct reference to the pursuit and prosecution of corner-cutting electrical magnate Samuel Insull.

This lengthy sequence should put paid to any reader's stereotypical notion of Warbucks as a "ruthless capitalist magnate." What he is is a martyr for capitalism -- an innocent roughneck, if you can wrap your mind around such a thing. In short order, he's taken in by a pair of swindlers who claim to be Annie's parents, gypped by a "loyal lifelong employee" who absconds with money meant for taxes, and railroaded by a blustering, demagogic district attorney. Even after he's cleared of all charges and has helped to bust a few crooked eggs in high places, he's left without a fortune and is soon back on the road with Annie. At different times, he could have cut his losses by saddling others with his failing company, but, needless to say, he refuses. These events were too much for a contemporary writer for the liberal NEW REPUBLIC, who blasted the Warbucks trial story as an example of "Hooverism in the Funnies." It wasn't pro-Hoover so much as anti-New Deal, and, as such, it made Gray a critical target for the rest of his career. Not that the hard-shelled cartoonist minded, of course.

In another fine introduction, Jeet Heer marks Gray's penchant for constructing elaborate, "delightfully maddening" plots that pile injustice atop injustice until the reader is ready to pop with indignation. The two main plot lines here certainly qualify. Slick agent Charles Chizzler (I do wish Gray had been a bit subtler with his character names) quickly repulses us as he tricks the singing Annie and her temporary partner, the blind violinist "Uncle" Dan Ballad, into signing a contract that gives Chizzler virtually all of the profits from their musical performances, but it's Chizzler's downfall that marks him as a truly evil character -- he simply refuses to believe that he's to blame for anything, constantly whining, "What did I do to deserve this?". He keeps up the keening even after the prison doors close behind him. By contrast, the conniving Boris Bleek, who mutates from Annie's irritable, phony father into the ruthless, homicidal leader of the thieving "Ghost Gang," seems like a much more commonplace villain, despite the dramatic darkening of his character. Gray's penchant for turning outcasts and scofflaws into likable characters comes to the fore once again in these stories, with Boris' wife Libby (a grown-up "ringer" for Annie) gradually learning to love the kid she originally only wanted to con and a genial confidence man giving Annie and Dan a hand by setting a trap that ensnares Chizzler.

Supplemental material includes a discussion of the much-loved ANNIE radio series (how many people drink Ovaltine anymore, I wonder?) and RKO's 1932 Annie movie, the first attempt to bring the character to the screen. Gray apparently had difficulty getting adequate compensation for the radio show, which may have contributed to his creation of Chizzler. It wouldn't be the last time that a personal gripe of Gray's found voice in the strip. There is no mention of the recent cancellation of the ANNIE strip, though the cancellation was mentioned on the LIBRARY OF AMERICAN COMICS Web site, which is now up and running. Perhaps this can be addressed in the next volume. Absent that omission, this is as good as it gets.

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