Monday, March 16, 2009

Kurt Caesar--Part 2 of 2

Rendering unto Caesar those things that weren't Caeser's

As much as I like Kurt Caesar's work, I always feel a little guilty about it because of his rampant swiping. I'm of two minds about swiping. In the fannish days of my youth I adopted a self-righteous zero tolerance policy. I was one of several apa hacks (the 1970s equivalent of bloggers) who delighted in excoriating Dan Adkins for stealing almost every panel. Adkins would swipe from s-f magazine artists when drawing comics, and from comics artists when illustrating science fiction mags; it seemed like a calculated effort to reduce the chances of readers recognizing his source material. I changed my tune about swiping once I found myself on the other side of the page. I saw how, in the face of looming deadlines or insufficient skill, swiping could save one's neck Still it's hard to view Caesar's best-known work, the Urania covers, without noting that this planet came from Bonestell, this robot from Mel Hunter, this spaceship from Alex Schomburg.

In his comics work Caesar was hardly alone in being awash in influences. In the late 1930s Alex Raymond and Milton Caniff were the twin gods of the comic strip. Almost every “realistic” cartoonist of the time was influenced by one or the other. Not only in America: American strips were enormously popular in Europe. There, Raymond was undisputed king. Kurt Caesar was one of a shipload of European strip cartoonists who based their work on Flash Gordon's master. Not only cartoonists admired Raymond ; he was equally popular with the public. A Serbian comics website describes how one publisher tried to boost sales by packaging Caesar's “Il Pirata del Cielo” as “the latest creation of the great A. Raymond,” going so far as to paste Raymond's signature onto the artwork!

Another source of Caesar's work was photos, especially movie stills. Working from stills is a time honored tradition. These photos are readily available, often dramatically lit and posed, and treat the same themes as comics. The practice seemed quite popular in pre-war Italy. To give one example, the South Pacific adventures of Franco Caprioli were littered with American movie stars. It's kind of fun to watch a character morph into Wallace Beery and back depending upon whether Caprioli had a movie still that matched his layout.

It's worth noting that comics didn't flow one way across the Atlantic. Some Italian strips appeared translated in American comics. Among them was the ubiquitous “Il Pirata del Cielo,” which appeared as “Sky Pirates” in Sky Blazers #1 (1940).

In Roy Thomas' Alter Ego magazine Alberto Beccatini has documented how after the war several Italian cartoonists worked for Archer St. John's comics. Other Italian work appeared in Fiction House titles, though I'm unsure whether it was new work or translated reprints. I suspect it was both. Kurt Caesar drew a Wings feature under his “Jack Away” byline, and the panels show extensive cut edges, meaning they might have been existing art reformatted to fit the American page. However the cuts may simply have been evidence of pasted over dialogue. I no longer own the comics so I can't go back to figure it out.

After the War, Caesar's covers for Il Vittorioso resembled those of the American “popular science” magazines. He romanticized racing cars, speedboats, new aircraft, and future predictions. The cover at left was from a 1961 issue (sorry about the extreme cropping; I scanned it in two pieces from a bound volume). In his comics work Caesar had simplified and modernized his style somewhat. But he hadn't thrown out his reference library--note the guest appearance by The Mangler in this fictitious strip about the X-15 rocket plane!

(Sky Pirates page from a reproduction of the story at goldenage comicbook stories. blogspot. com. Urania cover from Other pix from my collection.)

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