Monday, July 27, 2009

All Talk and No Pictures

ComicCon: A Time of Pros and Cons
I have been out of circulation recently, and haven't posted anything for a while. I just returned from spending a day and a half at the San Diego ComiCon, helping an old friend set up and tear down his booth. It was the first time I've attended the Con in some fifteen years. The changes were remarkable.

I first attended the San Diego Con back in the 1970s. It was held at a legendary run-down (now demolished) hotel from the 1920s called the El Cortez. The center of interests were the Dealers' Room and the guests' rooms. When the Dealers' Room closed everyone moved into the hotel lobby or up into the rooms; people wheeled and dealed, sang "filk" songs, traded, admired each others' purchases, and talked comics endlessly. Of course many also got drunk and rowdy, though in earlier years there was less of that than later as attendance grew.
The last time I attended the convention everything had changed, with even greater changes in the works. The physical setup was different: the Dealers' Room was now a big hall in San Diego's Convention Center. But the convention hotel was right nearby and there was still plenty of community activity. Attendees complained about the commercialization of the Con, but it was still essentially a fan event.

However the transfer of power was underway. "Mom and pop" dealerships (or rather, "just pop," since there were hardly any female dealers) were being elbowed out by big distributers and publishers, while media corporations were setting up booths to promote their s-f and horror projects. Comics were in the process of becoming big business. More importantly, the once largely separate fandoms of movies, comics and science-fiction were merging (thanks in a large part to Star Wars). Former fans had moved into editorial positions at the major publishers, putting a more fan-oriented spin on content and promotion. Movies were making overtures to the geek audience. In short, "pop culture" was beginning its move into the mainstream.

A decade and a half later the move is complete. Pop culture is the mainstream, and it's big, big business. The dealers of yore, with their rows of bagged comics and handwritten "Last Day! 20% off!" signs, have been relegated to a corner of an immense hall several blocks long. Even so, their numbers are small; most dealers this year sold toys, posters, and other tie-in items. Among them were numerous major dealerships displaying items no fan could have afforded in the El Cortez days: original magazine illustrations at $2000 and up, original comic book pages for $8000 and $10,000 each (what ever happened to the $5 bin?).

Now that anime/manga mania has consumed the entire world, the preponderance of dealers sold every conceivable kind of Japanimation item. Books, DVD's, statuettes, art, Pikachu hats (I almost bought one) name it. One guy sold authentic-looking (and very expensive) samurai sword replicas. Others sold costumes and props--steampunk was really big this year. And of all the independent publishers, of which there were a staggering number, it's fair to say 75 to 80 percent published manga-style comics.

The increased sophistication in marketing was visible in the fact that even the smallest "artist's alley" table was likely to have a flashy corporate-style backdrop with logo and framed art. This includes the guys whose stuff wasn't very good. I must say, however, that the number of "crud" artists was extremely small compared to years ago. This may be due to the fact that even tiny ComiCon booths are now quite expensive and there's often a long wait to get one. Only artists with some money can afford to present themselves. This doesn't mean they're all famous. Though out of touch with current comics, I still know many of the names and titles. At least half the artists in the alley were unknown to me, as were their characters and publications. My guess is that this is an aspect of how easy it is to self-publish these days. More people are "in print." In times gone by many capable artists and writers remained unseen because getting their work printed was prohibitively expensive. Of course, internet comics provide another opportunity to build a fan base, and some of these may have been electronic projects. I just don't know enough about that end of the business.

Tomorrow I'll go into the heart of the convention: the multinational entertainment corporation trade show. For now it's back to cleaning the garage.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

George Oleson, illustrator

George Olesen and his (Artistic) Music
(That title is an in-joke for other fans of 1920s American popular music.)

While indulging in my never-ending garage cleaning I found these tear-sheets from Ziff Davis' 1952 comic book The Hawk. These two stories showcase the work of George Olesen, whose name isn't well-known because he spent a great part of his career working anonymously. He penciled The Phantom Sunday pages (from 1961) and dailies (from 1978) for Sy Barry. Barry inked Olesen's pencils and signed the strips.

Olesen (born 1924) studied illustration at Pratt Institute after service in WWII. According to, in the year I was born (1949) he started in comic books, drawing Little Beaver. In the mid-50s he drew Ray Gotto's Ozark Ike Sundays for a while. He also did stories for Ziff-Davis' comic book line, which brings us back to these scans.

Oleson was a good, solid illustrator. He had a penchant for expressions and character faces, as we see in these Hawk stories. The Hawk himself was one of those countless roving cowpokes who tamed towns and tackled varmints. He happened to be a lawman, but he must have freelanced because he was never tied to a particular town like other badge-bearing Westerners. If The Hawk hadn't always worn the same clothes it might have been hard to recognize him. He boasted a wide range of artists with very different (and often very good) styles, including Carmine Infantino, Joe Kubert, and of course Olesen.

The first story is a six-pager..."Leverett's Last Stand!"

Back in the sadly-long-departed days when I hung out at Jim Vadeboncoeur's place and looked at comics, Jim never quite understood my desire to read everything as well as look at the pictures. That's what comes from liking to write as well as draw, I suppose. If you don't read this strip you'll miss a truly remarkable piece of work. The writer manages to work almost every B-movie/comic book western cliche into a single six-page story! There are: the Indian raid, the stagecoach attack, the sexy female bandit, the attempted seduction (and murder) of the hero, the jealous partner killing the female bandit when he thinks she really plans to betray him, the horseback pursuit, a nice fistfight and the return of the killer to Justice. Oh, hey, did I mention the cavalry rescue?

I fantasize that the writer was a newcomer, who quit comics after this, his first story. He realized he'd used up all his material on his first job.

The second story, "The Hawk in...a Big Hole in the Page," (sorry) runs eight pages. It tips off one of the big story "surprises" in the splash panel.

The highlight of this story is that wonderful toothy villain. Though he looks a bit bizarre, he comes to life with a full range of expressions, almost every one of which features his teeth. I'm not the only one who liked this guy. In the 1960s Dick Giordano brought him out of retirement to be the bad guy in an issue of Dell's Nukla.

One interesting thing about Olesen's artwork here is the "softness" of his horses. Not that they're badly drawn; they aren't. However their anatomy is very general, as if Olesen wasn't quite sure how horses fit together but got the big shapes right. Sort of like the guys who draw approximate cars because they really don't quite know all the little details that go into making a "real" looking car. I don't mean this as a put-down of Olesen. Obviously he figured horses out fine later. I mention it because it's interesting to see an already-skilled artist with room to grow.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Guilty Pleasures--1

Why the Hell Do You Like That?!
Like every comic strip fan, I have a special regard for some features that, when anyone else sees them, prompts the exclamation, "Why the hell do you like that?" Sometimes, after a long thoughtful pause, I admit (only to myself!) that I haven't the foggiest idea why I like it. For me the prize guilty pleasure, eclipsing even Gim Toro, is Brick Bradford.
I'm going to make some powerful enemies here, among them the estimable M. Hugo Sleestak and half of Italy's Golden Age fans. Brick Bradford is recognized as a seminal strip in American comics history! How can I call it a "guilty pleasure?" Alas, no matter how much I like William Ritt and Clarence Gray's brainchild, I am forced to admit that it was a clunky mess marred by boring scripts and variable, often poor, artwork.

In truth Brick Bradford's appeal is what the strip should have been, not what it really was. Looking at William Ritt's tenure as writer (1933-1948), one finds a bounty of great ideas. Many were original at the time, or at least not yet done to death: a giant robot terrorizing a city, a lost civilization in the Arctic ice, a journey into subatomic worlds. Ritt, a voracious researcher who liked to pack his stories with arcane knowledge, also cooked up some truly offbeat story hooks I still find irresistible. Among these is "The Lord of Doom," in which a Hollywood leading man reveals himself as the descendant of Temujin the Conqueror and invades Canada and the United States from his hidden Arctic fortress; and "Queen of the Night," in which Brick's lunar expedition discovers a colony of earth people who fled the first World War by building a spaceship and relocating on the Moon!
Ritt's trouble was that he took these great ideas and wrote interminable stories that droned on and on. His characters were of cardboard extra-sturdy even for 1930s comic strips. Their dialogue was of finest lead.Adventure strips of the 1930s could indulge in much longer storylines than today's holdouts. But Ritt's continuities weren't long, they were nearly eternal. All the stories from 1933 to 1940 lasted more than six months. Then Ritt really went to town. 1940's "The Throne of Titania" ran 765 days...well over two years! The next two stories, "Beyond the Crystal Door" and "Queen of the Night" ran over a year apiece (462 and 468 days respectively). Two short (168 day) stories followed as Ritt lost interest in the strip. After that he departed. Clarence Gray wrote short continuities for several years until health problems forced him to relinquish the dailies to Paul Norris. Gray continued to write and draw the Sunday Brick until his death in 1957.

I guarantee you Ritt's stories didn't need all that room. Even "shorter" stories like "Adrift in an Atom" were laden with digressions and dead ends. Worse, Ritt often pointlessly spread minor scenes over several days. The following example comes from "The Metal Monster:"

I can't find my reprint to scan, but there's another sequence earlier in "The Metal Monster" in which the bad guy shoots at Brick through his laboratory window. The shooter retreats along a balcony, Brick follows him, then the villain doubles back and winds up behind Brick. This goes on for almost a week. Maybe hot artwork would have made the tedium worthwhile, but that brings us to Brick Bradford's other problem: artist Clarence Gray.
Above: From the strip's first year (1933).
At his best Gray was a competent cartoonist. His work in the first year of the strip was solid if unexciting. From the beginning his figures were stiff, a tendency that worsened as the strip progressed. But Gray had a knack for 30s-style s-f machinery and a flair for exotic landscapes and architecture. However during most of Brick Bradford's heyday Gray wasn't at his best . Some dailies showed real effort:But far too many were hasty and poorly-composed. Dailies like this looked as if they were knocked out before breakfast.In fact, that may have been the case! In a King Features publicity piece Gray bragged of once having drawn "six strips in five hours." Bradford dailies from the thirties suggest he did it more than once.Gray put much more effort into the Sunday pages. Though his compositions were frequently awkward and his figures never lost their stiffness, Gray filled his Sunday panels with action, crowds, and detailed vistas.

The "Middle of the Earth" Sunday is from 1935, not long after the "Brocco the Buccaneer" daily.

After Ritt left and Paul Norris took over the dailies, Gray concentrated his efforts on his beloved Sunday page. His stiff figures developed thick, rather ugly outlines, but everything else demonstrated the extra care. Take a look at the last two panels of the 1950s Sunday below. Gray's stories were as quirky as Ritt's. I remember one set in an alternate future where Native Americans were America's dominant culture. New York's skyscrapers were shaped like wigwams! But Gray didn't have the space to develop his ideas, and all too soon cancer ended his career at age 56. Paul Norris took over the Sundays as well...and for me that was the end of Brick Bradford. The character Norris wrote and drew for the next thirty years wasn't the same naive wide-eyed adventurer. Brick, like Flash Gordon, joined the Space Age, though at least he kept the Time Top around.

Naive, wide-eyed adventure. That's why Brick Bradford appeals to me, despite the meandering stories and bad art. It's the romance of lost worlds, nut-and-bolt spaceships, hulking humanoid robots, and hidden civilizations that inspired comics creators and fiction writers alike during the 1920s and 1930s. Ritt and Gray just didn't have the "stuff" to make Brick a truly great strip. But their naive, wide-eyed enthusiasm was transmitted through their efforts into the hearts of readers like me.

To read a Brick adventure, you must check out, hosted by my newly-minted enemy Hugo Sleestak. It is from him I lifted the first two dailies. Most of the remaining artwork in this article came from the fantastic galleries at, particularly the collections of Francisco Lopez, Maurizio Scudiero, and Massimo E. I'll bet there are more Clarence Gray originals in Italy than anywhere else...they love their "Guido (Giorgio) Ventura"!