FOR GROWN-UPS :: Part 1
by Borin Van Loon
can trace comics back to the cave dwellers, if you want to try that
hard. Bayeux tapestry, ancient woodcuts... Sequential art telling
a story, depicting culturally identifiable events. (Oops! An attempted
course, I knew nothing of this when I first saw Frank Hampson's
Dan Dare in the fifties. He, the creator of Dare, teamed up with
Rev. Marcus Morris to produce a new comic for boys called the 'Eagle'.
At a time of post-war austerity Morris persuaded the publisher to
lavish good quality coated paper and full colour printing on this
large format, morally uplifting publication. Apart from the very
worthy 'Boys Own Paper' ('BoP' for short!), there were the pulps
like 'Hotspur' which had loads of words, the 'Eagle' gave us Dan
Dare, Pilot of the Future (which I pastiched as 'Don't Dare Privatise
The Future' in the Thatcher era), beautiful cutaway drawings of
locomotives in the centre spread (initially another Hampson creation),
Waldorf and Cecil, P.C. Fortynine, Harris Tweed and loads more.
The stable of titles expanded to 'Swift', 'Robin' and the girls
never got a look in until 'Girl' was published. Oddly enough, when
Frank Bellamy took over the Dan Dare strip, he couldn't see the
need for all the sculptures, models, reference photographs and studio
assistants previously assembled by Hampson, so he sat down and drew
the whole thing on his own(1).
other stream of British comix which still survive to today is the
'Dandy', 'Beano' and 'Beezer' school of cartooning. Formulaic fun
which stands the test of time. Not much to say about these apart
from mentioning that the 'Beezer' carried a strip called 'The Katzenjammer
Kids' when I was young. It's
impenetrable mid-European language was by turns baffling and intriguing.
I now find (2) that this strip was devised by German immigrant to
the USA, Rudolph Dirks in 1897, later continued by Harold Knerr.
Not only is it the longest running strip in the history of comics,
but Dirks can be attributed with the introduction of text panels
and speech balloons to create the comic as we recognise it. One
of the luminaries of Beanoland is Leo Baxendale, who virtually created
the style of children's comics seen in Minnie the Minx and The Bash
Street Kids. He reappeared in 'Thrrrp' published by Knockabout Comics
(3) in the eighties in a more unhinged, adult context. Incidentally,
you can probably still get hold of 'The Legend of Lord Snooty and
his Pals' (from the 'Dandy', of course) at a book remainder shop
world of mainstream American comics was developing through the twentieth
century Sunday colour supplements. To these we owe the existence
of some of the greatest strips in comics.
Nemo in Slumberland' by Winsor McCay, a master of draughtsmanship,
pioneer in drawn animation (boy, did he draw!) and creator of surreal
dreamworlds from 1905 (i.e. decades before Dali). Interestingly,
given his mastery of the sweeping colour panorama and superb character
and costume, his lettering and speech balloons are rather poor;
he was human after all. Recently the whole cannon has been republished
in beautiful quality by Titan Books (5). The video (6) of his early
animations including the extraordinary 'Sinking of the Lusitania'
is held by Suffolk libraries.
Kat' by George Herriman, published 1913 until his death in 1944
(and, uniquely in capitalist American publishing, no attempt was
made to continue this winning strip with another artist). The most
celebrated strip in history, yet on the surface the most scrappy
and gloss-less. Perhaps Herriman did just sit down at his Bristol
board and draw it 'alla prima'. The eternal triangle of the 'Kat'
whose love for Ignatz Mouse is unrequited; the response from the
mouse is invariably a house brick (one of the most important uses
of a plot device in history!) thrown at the Kat's head. The impact
is always accompanied by bursting hearts around the Kat's seraphic
smile, as he has some recognition of his existence in the eyes of
the mouse. The jealous love for Krazy by Offissa Pupp - an officious
police dog, no less - always leads to him jailing the mouse for
his brick-throwing. Doesn't sound all that promising, does it.?
And yet Herriman creates changing landscapes and backdrops with
each panel (a technique used more recently by Hunt Emerson and well,
me), employs that oddly quirky, mid-European accent in the mouths
of the animal characters; poetry and incites into human character
abound. Disney it surely ain't.(7)
terms of the physical comic book genre America certainly led the
way with Entertaining Comics (ECs), Detective Comics (DCs) and Marvel
Comics. The best known characters are undoubtedly Superman and Batman,
but my own favourite is Plasticman who can stretch his body to half
a mile in length or pour himself through a letter box, all in the
interests of fighting crime, of course. Very funny, too. As Plasticman
is to Superman, so Wonder Warthog is to The Fabulous Furry Freak
Brothers (of which more later).
Eisner's 'The Spirit' also broke new ground when our masked hero
in broad brimmed trilby and double breasted suit underwent all sorts
of indignities, often at the hands of Lauren Bacallesque femmes
fatales. Indeed the humorous, anti-hero, filmic comic probably starts
here. The whole canon was republished in original format with new
colour covers in the seventies.
time to tell you about the penchant for unbridled comic art in American
culture epitomized by the horror comic. When Dr Frederic Wertham
became aware of the terrible things which were available to our
pop kids, he reported to the US Government and got them to agree
to the Comics Code of America. All mainstream publishers had to
abide by strict guidelines about sexual and violent content and
to this day they display the symbol of the Comics Code on their
covers. The extraordinary horror and sick genres of comics went
underground and it's still very difficult to get hold of any examples,
apart, that is, from those shown in Dr Wertham's' notorious book
'The Seduction' of the Innocent' (8) which you can still request
from the County Reserve of Suffolk Libraries. My brother brought
home from school a couple of examples of these illicit black and
white comics in the early sixties and I have to admit to being impressed
and disturbed in equal parts by these powerful, nightmarish works.
I still remember every frame. I wish I could get my hands on some
examples now; an internet search beckons, I can feel it. The man
at the heart of comics censorship in America was later celebrated
quite scurrilously in 'Dr Wertham's Comics', a post-hippy underground
piece of great vitality.
you want to deconstruct comics and get to know what really makes
them tick, you can do just that with Scott McCloud's 'Understanding
Comics' and it's follow up 'Reinventing Comics'. (9)
own strip, 'A
Severed Head' has just started to appear in the quarterly magazine
'The Chap' (10)
pick up the story next time (Go to Part 2).
Crompton, Alistair 'The man who drew tomorrow', Who Dares Publishing
(2) Horn, Maurice '100 years of American newspaper comics', Gramercy
(3) Baxendale, Leo 'Thrrp!' Knockabout 1987
(4) 'The legend of Lord Snooty and his pals', D.C. Thompson 1998
(5) 'Little Nemo in Slumberland Vol 1 (1905-1907)' , Titan Books
(6) 'Winsor McCay: animation legend' Academy Video (B.F.I.) 1997(?)
(7) 'Krazy Kat', Madison Square Press / Grosset & Dunlap 1969
(8) Wertham, Dr Frederic 'Seduction of the innocent', Museum Press
(9) McCloud, Scott 'Understanding Comics', Kitchen Sink Press 1993
(10) 'The Chap', (quarterly) P.O. Box 21135, London N16 0WW
September's meeting Borin Van Loon (below), freelance Illustrator,
Writer, Painter, and our Chairman, talked about comics and brought
along some of his vast collection.