Monday, April 22, 2019

Rudolph Dirks Anticipates the Group of Seven

by BK Munn

Rudolph Dirks took the characters of his Katzenjammer Kids strip around the world many times before they more or less settled down on a tropical island, and one of their earliest adventures was a search for the North Pole. As part of this epic 1907 quest, the trio of The Captain, Hans and Fritz travelled through the arctic, battling polar bears and meeting other northern inhabitants, including racist caricatures of Inuit people who speak in gibberish. The Captain, like Dirks himself, just wants to travel and paint pictures, but is constantly pranked by the kids. In the sequence below, he likens the painting of a pine tree to poetry, echoing Robert Service’s "The Pines” and presaging both Joyce Kilmer’s famous poem “Trees” (“I think that I shall never see/a poem lovely as a tree...”) and the paintings of Tom Thompson and the Group of Seven, notably Thompson’s “The Jack Pine”. Dirks was a fellow traveller of The Ashcan School of painters and was one of the cartoonists who exhibited in the Armoury Show of 1913.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Cracked Magazine Party Pix: December 1988 (Clowes,Bagge, Altergott, Severin, Martin)

 It’s a Cracked Magazine cocktail party, from Cracked #241, December 1988. The magazine was at that time under the editorship of Mort Todd and featured Todd and Dan Clowes’ Uggly Family strip, as well as contributions from Weirdo editor and Neat Stuff/Hate creator Peter Bagge. Doofus creator Rick Altergott was a regular as well. These guys comprised the “kids’ table” at this memorable meeting of the minds that also featured all-time greats like John Severin, Don Martin, Don Orehek, Bill Wray, and many more. Great to see photos of these past and future giants in a casual, but work-related setting!

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

The Dr. Strange-George Costanza Connection: From Master of the Mystic Arts to Master of His Domain

by BK Munn

There's an interesting echo of the origin of Steve Ditko’s Dr. Strange in one of the more famous episodes of Seinfeld, 1993’s “The Puffy Shirt”. In the episode, written by Larry David, sad sack George rockets to the top of the hand model game, but just as he feels his life is turning around, his brief career is cut short when his hubris is rewarded with inevitable destiny in the form of a carelessly-placed clothes iron.

George’s vanity is reminiscent of that displayed by high-flying surgeon Stephen Strange, who destroys his precious hands in a car accident and subsequently wanders the world searching for a cure that can restore his skill and dexterity, until he eventually winds up at the hidden Himalyan monastary of the Ancient One who trains trains him in the mystic arts.

George’s doom is foreshadowed by the tale of a hand model whose story is eerily similar to Stephen Strange’s and also contains a callback to another famous Seinfeld ep, “The Contest”. At his first (and last) photo shoot, George learns of the mysterious “Ray McKigney” who had “the most exquisite hands you've ever seen.” 

As the unnamed hand model agent tells it, McKigney fell victim to self-love:

MAN: Tragic story, I'm afraid. He could've had any woman in the world.. but none could match the beauty of his own hand.. and that became his one true love..
(Long pause)
GEORGE: You mean, uh..?
MAN: Yes. he was not.. master of his domain.
GEORGE: (Makes a gesture saying he understands. The man nods) But how.. uh..?
MAN: (Quick, to the point) The muscles.. became so strained with.. overuse, that eventually the hand locked into a deformed position, and he was left with nothing but a claw. (Holds hand up, displaying a claw-like shape) He traveled the world seeking a cure.. acupuncturists.. herbalists.. swamis.. nothing helped. Towards the end, his hands became so frozen the was unable to manipulate utensils, (Visibly disgusted by this last part) and was dependent on Cub Scouts to feed him. I hadn’t seen another pair of hands like Ray McKigney's.. until today. You are his successor. (George looks down at his hands) I.. only hope you have a little more self-control.
GEORGE: (Smiling to himself) You don't have to worry about me. (Nodding, gloating) I won a contest.

The egotistical Ayn Randian superman who is humbled and must painfully learn the lessons of true heroism is a Marvel Comics mainstay, from Peter Parker to Tony Stark to Dr. Strange, and the story of a a professional man who suffers the loss of his hands must have had a special resonance for a cartoonist, but the Stephen Strange/Ray McKigney story has other precedents in popular culture. “The Hands of Orlac” is a 1923 silent film that popularized the medieval legend of The Hand of Glory --the disembodied body part of a dead criminal endowed with magical powers. In the film, a concert pianist loses his hands in an accident and has the hands of a murderer grafted on by an experimental surgeon. The film was remade many times, with two versions appearing just before the origin of Dr. Strange was published in Strange Tales #115 in 1963:  1960's “The Hands of Orlac” (with Mel Ferrer as Orlac and Christopher Lee as the magician “Nero”), and 1962’s “Hands of a Stranger”. It’s entirely possible that Ditko and/or his editor Stan Lee saw or read some version of this story before penning the Dr. Strange story. The film was even remade by Oliver Stone in 1981 as “The Hand”, with Michael Caine as a cartoonist (!) who loses his drawing hand in a car accident, only to have the hand return to haunt him as a murderous appendage. The cartoonist’s art in the film was supplied by real-life Marvel veteran Barry Windsor-Smith. Did Larry David encounter any of these iterations before concocting his tale of the masturbating hand model? Who can say...

Tuesday, January 29, 2019


Saw Roma (2018) last night. Beautiful film. I think I know the secret to its success: a hidden cameo by Nancy and Sluggo in the film’s final minutes. Part of the film’s metacommentary on movies and childhood, the issue is Periquita #200 (Periquita and Tito were the Spanish-language Nancy and Sluggo), one of several comics seen fleetingly in Roma. I think this issue is an anachronism from 1975  OR 1976 (the movie is set in 1971 around the Corpus Christi massacre in Mexico City). Published by Editorial Novaro, it appears to be reprints of the U.S. Dell comics series, with John Stanley stories. There is a great line in the film when a young couple is about to go to the movies for a make-out session, and the young woman says “I prefer to play in the dark.”

The monthly series began publication in 1960 and each issue consisted of 32 full-colour pages. The dimensions of the comics changed beginning in March 1975 due to the rise in the cost of paper, forcing the publisher to reduce the size of its comics by almost half to 19.5 x 13.5 cm from 25 x 17 cm (this is when the "Eagle Series" logo appears). Some stories may have been written and drawn by Mexican creators.

Sunday, December 09, 2018

Little King Comics

I think the consensus is that the Little King comics published by Dell were written and thumbnailed by John Stanley of Little Lulu fame. The Little King is one of the most iconic of comic strips and its creator, Otto Soglow, was a great cartoonist, beloved of little children and adult intellectuals alike (Salvador Dali was his biggest fan). The Dell comic book adaptations, signed by Soglow but not by him, are also great. These comics are playful and actually funny, with a great graphic aspect that echoes the comic strip in its use of geometric shapes, contrast and wonderful compositions. Just beautiful.

These panels are from "The Statue" (Four Color #597: The Little King, 1954)

Friday, November 30, 2018

Antique Show Comics, part 1: Canadian Red Ryder Comics

I bought this from a toy vendor this weekend not because I like these comics but because I don't have any of this particular type. You hardly see these Canadian editions of Dell Comics (I wish it was a Little Lulu!). Less pages than the U.S. issues and blank inside covers. Subscription coupon on the back cover. Published by The Wilson Publishing Company, 123 Eighteenth Street, New Toronto. Established during the WECA embargo on U.S. comics, the company kept chugging along until I believe the Comics Code came along.

More on this postwar period of comics publishing in Canada.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Sleepin' Lena by Erich F.T. Schenk

My new favourite comic book character is Sleepin' Lena, the anthropomorphic lady cat afflicted with hypersomnia. Lena was written and drawn by Erich F.T. Schenk, an American journeyman cartoonist who worked for a variety of publishers in the 1940s, and also for the Fleisher animation studio, where he provided surreal background paintings for Popeye and Betty Boop cartoons. Lena appeared in only a handful of stories in different titles. In each story, Lena gets a new job but falls asleep and has a dreamlike adventure before getting fired. I love the character especially because of this story where she is hired as a soda jerk in a candy store, just like my store! A truly weird character at the intersection of race and gender. The comics historian Cheryl Spoehr has posited that Lena is a literary "type" based on stereotypes of people of colour, especially broken down maids, found in popular American books and other media of the early 20th Century. Perhaps the name is borrowed from Lena Horne, who was at the height of her early success in the 1940s?
(from Merry-Go-Round Comics 1945, nn --only issue, published by American Comics Group)