Sunday, August 30, 2009

Perils and Pitfalls of the Golden Age

It's Like Comics on Speed!
If you haven't been following John Adcock's fine blog Yesterday's Papers, here's a good reason to begin. John is running excerpts from a series of rabid anti-comic book feature stories first published circa 1945 in The Southtown Economist. This Chicago newspaper began documenting comics' contribution to perversion and juvenile crime long before Dr. Wertham published his first article. It's a fascinating look not only at the persecution of comics, but also attitudes about propriety in the waning days of World War II.

John's first story is here. The second installment dissects a "Captain Freedom" story from an issue of Speed Comics (No. 35, November, 1944). Which is what prompted this post. While John turned up an image of the book's cover, by lucky chance I have scans of the whole issue. Without attempting in any way to steal John's thunder, I would like to present the entire story, "Revenge of the Insect Giants," to provide context while you read the Economist article.

In the story a villainous beekeeper creates giant killer bees to take revenge on a tormentor. Captain Freedom must intervene to set things right. The newspaper article doesn't mention that the beekeeper is a stereotype "hayseed" locked in an ongoing feud with a neighbor. When not feuding, Jabez Mather, the beekeeper, is growing, for no apparent reason, some giant bees. A bee escapes and stings the neighbor's bull to death. It's good news and bad news: the bull was about to maul Captain Freedom's pals, who are vacationing with the Captain's alter ego nearby.

But then the neighbor finds his bull killed by "this bee stinger." Not even pausing to wonder that the stinger is two feet long, the distraught neighbor grabs a shotgun and shoots up Mather's beehives. To Mather this is the last straw. He runs to his "bee laboratory" vowing revenge.

Mather dispatches a giant bee to kill his neighbor. Captain Freedom hears the man's dying scream and confronts the giant bee. However the creature expires before the Captain can attack. The bee had left its stinger in the neighbor, and drops dead.

The kids try to spy on Mather but they're discovered and trussed up. As the article's horrified writer says, the mad beekeeper paints the youths with nectar so his bees will kill them. Just why they deserve death isn't clear.

Neither is Mather's sudden elocution upgrade. While his neighbor was shooting at him, Jabez had said things like, "Ye be shootin' up my beehives! I'll git ye fer this!" As he slathers on the nectar, the new improved Jabez intones, "First I anoint my victims to make a decent dish...soon giant bees will hatch and have a royal feast on these nectar-smeared kidlets!"

When the Economist claimed that Captain Freedom bashes through the barn door with his head I thought they'd simply misinterpreted bad drawing...but by golly the journalist is right! Hearing the kids' screams the good Captain head-butts his way into Mather's lab.

He's met by several giant bees. The Captain is outnumbered but Mather is taking no chances. He throws a convenient jug of nitric acid (a must-have on many New England farms) at the battling hero.

Sadly, Mather's aim is poor. Instead of frizzling Freedom, the acid splashes the giant bees. "My beauties!" Mather emotes. "I have destroyed my beauties!" An attempt to run is cut short as Captain Freedom tackles the bee-keeper, delivering a righteous speech: "Save your song, you dirty killer! Save it for the jury!"

But the heinous hayseed will never need to comb his hair for a trial. A blow from Captain Freedom knocks Mather into the beehives. The bees swarm from the smashed hives and promptly sting the farmer to death. Just in case we don't know that's what's going on, Mather cries, "YEEOWW! I-I'm being s-stung to d-death!"

Captain Freedom chases the bees away with a smudge pot. It's too late, though. A caption tells us: "But--DEATH...comes for the bee-keeper. Ironic death!" In case we slept through the two previous panels, Mather helpfully recaps them, briefly lapsing into Cowboyspeak to do so: "I'm c-cashing my chips! My own bees stung m-me to d-death!" Exhausted by approaching death, Mather is unable to maintain his lofty villain dialogue. When he launches into a last-minute self-justification, it's in his own voice: "I'm not really a killer like you said, Mister...just was aimin' to settle accounts with that no-account Hiram!"

This statement evinces enough sympathy for the Captain to murmur, "Take it easy!" as the bee-keeper expires. Though this ought to be the story's ending, there's a half-page, balloon-crammed anticlimax. This is the exchange The Economist describes. Captain Freedom, having read the last caption and liked it, paraphrases it for his funerary speech: "He died the same way he killed his neighbor--IRONIC JUSTICE!"

This, too, should have been the end of the story, but the kids still need to stage a leave-'em-laughing finish with Captain Freedom's alter ego (the kids don't know publisher Don Wright is Captain Freedom). And that, finally, is the end.

The end of another grisly, mind-rotting comic story. Another attack on our children's minds and morals. Not even a rousing memo from General "Hap" Arnold could counteract this story's evil effects. In fact, immediately after reading it I ran out, smeared two neighbors with Sioux Bee honey, and blasted their beehives with a shotgun I found in my garage next to my jug of Nitric Acid.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Julio Ribera Interviewed (1971)

A Moment in Time
A 1971 Interview with Spanish Cartoonist Julio Ribera
Another interesting find resurfaced from the endless mire of my garage: issue #5 (April 1971) of ¡Bang!, a Spanish prozine dedicated to comic art. ¡Bang! was one of several professional-quality European comics-related magazines to pop up in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I believe France's Phenix was the first. These magazines enjoyed a different relationship with comics creators than similar American projects, due probably to the overall higher regard artists enjoyed in Europe, as well as the somewhat greater maturity of the magazines' producers. The mags not only presented historical articles and interviews, but often new material by established creators. It was a heady time for European comics.

This fascinating interview with Spanish comic artist Julio Ribera makes one aware just how heady a time it was. In 1971 Ribera was 44 years old, having enjoyed a significant career first in his native country, then in France, to which he'd moved in 1954. When Henri Filippini conducted the interview, Ribera had just begun working for Pilote, the legendary weekly which was then hosting a new generation of creators destined to rock the comics world: Giraud, Gigi, Mézières, Druillet, and more. Ribera seems unaware that he was on the verge of his own Golden Age. The work he'd do during the next thirty-some years would eclipse anything he'd produced to that point.

His best-known work was the s-f/fantasy series Le Vagabond des Limbes. Dargaud published English versions of two volumes 25 years ago, but in France no fewer than 31 volumes have appeared. Dracurella, a lightly erotic comic fantasy, also enjoyed a long run. Buoyed by success, Ribera and his long-time scenarist, Christian Godard, founded their own publishing company, Vaisseau d'Argent, in 1988. Unfortunately the company folded after three years; the team moved on to Dargaud and Glénat. The last work I know of was Montserrat - Souvenirs de la Guerre Civile, done in 2007 when Ribera was 80 years old. It drew upon Ribera's childhood during the Spanish Civil War. Unfortunately I've never seen a copy; from the excerpts on the Web I gather that Ribera was as capable an artist as ever, although his approach was more realistic than the combination serious-cartoony approach that was Ribera's trademark.

From what I can tell Ribera is still alive, though he doesn't seem to be active any longer. What a heckuva careeer of which to boast! I hope you enjoy this snapshot in time as much as I did.

Julio Ribera interviewed by Henri Filippini

( From Bang! No. 5, 1971. Translated from the French into Spanish by Carlo Fabretti; translated from the Spanish by Smurfswacker.)

Henri Filippini: You have a long career behind you. Could you sketch it for us in broad strokes?

Julio Ribera: Gladly. I must say I've always been drawing: when I was five I was drawing in the margins of account books. I started working for real with the artist Pedro Alférez, who had a small publishing company back then; he was the first to give me a paying job. After that, in 1945-46, I went to Ediciones Plaza: it was there I made my debut in the business. I was one of the mainstays of the girls' magazine, Florita, where I created a character, a girl named “Rosy,” and another character called “Pirulina.” I worked with Vicente Roso, was exciting. “Rosy” was a big success, and when I moved to France my friend Buxadé kept the character going. Around 1950 I drew the adventures of “Pepín y Sulfato” for Yumbo, which marked my entry into the realm of fantasy, which I'd always enjoyed. Afterward I did “Duke” for the magazine Detector, which also published American comics.

It was about then I got into realistic science fiction, with the series “Flying Saucers,” 10-panel features that I had to turn out every two weeks...then came the great adventure...moving to France in 1954. France, where it seemed that artists were paid a lot more. My first work was for the publisher Chapelle; a western in the monthly Zorro, “Pistol Tom,” in issue 20. [SmurfNote: Ribera may have misspoken; I believe this strip was actually called “Pistol Jim.”]

H.F.: Was it difficult getting started in France?

J.R.: A little, but a lot of my compatriots were trying the same thing back then. After debuting in Zorro, I did illustrated albums for Bias, for example “William Tell.” Nicolas Goulon gave me work in A Tout Cœur, a romance monthly along the lines of Nous Deux.

I had a lot of my friends from Spain around me: Longaron, Sommer, Parras, the same time I worked for La Semaine de Suzette. I also did a series of illustrated novels for Opera Mundi and Hallandier: “The Mysteries of New York,” “Tragic Queens" you can see, it wasn't bad for starters. Afterward, in 1956, I moved to the Bonne Presse, where, after doing a short story, “La Barrage,” I created the character “Tony Sextant, Chevalier de l'Espace,” in collaboration with the writer Aquaviva. The series lasted until 1960, when Bayard, the magazine it appeared in, folded. In 1958 I created, also for Bayard, a story for little children, “Lolo and Mandoline.”

H.F.: After this auspicious beginning, how is it you abandoned juvenile magazines for the daily newspapers?

J.R.: Very simple: in 1964 there was a slump. La Semaine de Suzette went under, Lisette, which I also worked for, changed their short, nobody was giving me any work. I was even thinking of changing professions. Fortunately, the monthly Amis Coop gave me some work and let me work with complete freedom. Thanks to them I could experiment and figure out what did and didn't work. I spent a lot of time looking for a more appropriate style. I'm glad to be able to express in this magazine how indebted I am to the editors at Amis Coop.

Finally, after six months of absolutely nothing, I decided to try my luck with the daily papers. I got my foot in at France Soir: they desperately needed an artist to picturize the TV serial Belphegor. It was quite a race for several weeks. I had to turn out a page a day, the idea being to follow along with the serial. After that, I did an adaptation--also for France Soir--of the movie Viva Maria with Jeanne Moreau and Brigitte Bardot. It was published all over the world: it was a sort of advertisement for the movie. Then I did a few series for “Amours celebres [Famous Romances]” and “Le Crime ne pais pas[Crime Does Not Pay].” In 1966 I created the character “Capitaine Tempete,” adapted from a novel by Richard Bessiere, which appeared in the “Fleuve Noire” collection.

H.F.: And Pilote marked your return to comics?

J.R.: Yes, but without many expectations. Goscinny is very tough and doesn't accept many scripts. It's a lot of work for not much money. But I hope this works itself out and that Pilote will trust me with other stories in which I can express myself freely.

H.F.: How about erotic comics? Have you thought of trying them out some day?

J.R.: Yes, I've thought about it, particularly after the Frankfurt Fair, where I saw a lot of work along that line. I think one could do better by avoiding the subjects they're presently using. It's essential, as in a film, that the mise-en-scène should be at the highest level [SmurfNote: Not sure of my translation here; Ribera seems to say that story and art quality must be much better].

H.F.: Are you up on current Spanish comics? What do you think of their present state of evolution?

J.R.: I've always thought that we could have great artists in Spain, especially if they were allowed to do what they wanted. I think that what's going on today is very encouraging. I really like Giménez, Maroto, Sió...and I want to say that I have a special fondness for Buxadé, a master of the Western, who because of that has been able to publish in the United States. Right now he's visiting with Fred Harman; I wouldn't be at all surprised if he revived Red Ryder. There's also Blasco; he's a classic, the real thing.

H.F.: And among the French?

J.R.: The Pilote crew is exceptional: Giraud, Gigi, Alexis, Mézières, and Druillet, too...Loro...and among my colleagues at the France Soir I really like Pecnard and Popineau.

H.F.: What do you think of the movement that's producing publications about the comics, like Phenix and ¡Bang!?

J.R.: It's terrific; it means that people are talking about comics, that people are interested in them. This helps to sell comics, and as you know, for an artist it's important to sell more and more.

H.F.: Do you have anything to say in conclusion?

J.R.: You could say that I was born with comics, I live with comics, and I'll create what I love until the day I die. You can do anything with the comic strip, so long as you find editors who can understand you. ■

Credits: I found bits and pieces of the artwork for this entry around the Web, but the Rosy sample I copied from one of the remarkable blogs of Joan Navarro. This Catalonian comics expert must have the world's greatest collection of vintage Spanish comics! He presents sample pages on the blog Viñetas. I will never tire of browsing his only quibble is I wish he'd give more historical background. I hope he won't be too annoyed for my "borrowing" Rosy.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Dell TV and Movie Comics--1

Crawford in the Comics
King of Diamonds was a short-lived American TV show from the early 1960s. It wasn't much. I watched it because I liked its star, Broderick Crawford, with whom I'd grown up watching Highway Patrol. John King, the protagonist, was a tough private security agent who worked in the diamond industry.

In 1962 Dell Comics published a one-shot comic based on the series. This was the period during which Dell, having separated from Western Publishing (which in turn created the Gold Key line), was going it alone. It was an interesting period for Dell. While they continued a decades-long tradition of publishing media tie-ins, their choices were often odd (e.g. Michael Shayne, Private Detective, set in its original World War II era). They also launched their own titles, some of which have become cult favorites--Kona, Monarch of Monster Isle and Brain Boy, for instance--but are remarkable both for their oddball subjects and their downright strange scripts.

I have read that L.B. Cole was editor during this period, though a fan letter I sent to Nukla was answered by D.J. Arneson. They may have gone through more than one editorial regime. The artist roster, which often changes with a change of editors, began with upper-middle-level artists like Mike Sekowsky and Bob Fujitani. By the Frankenstein/Dracula/Werewolf days, almost the only artists left were Tony Tallarico (with Bill Fraccio) and Jack Sparling, both famous for drawing for the worst-paying companies.

King of Diamonds was pencilled by Mike Sekowsky, and it featured the sort of things Sekowsky was best at: real world settings and guys in suits. While the artwork obviously sped up a bit in the latter pages (backgrounds began disappearing), Mike still did a nice job. He was served especially well by the inker. For years I believed the book was inked by Bob Fujitani. This still looks likely, especially in the earlier pages. However Sy Barry could have been in there, too, as could the prolific Bernard Sachs. Sekowsky's strips were often split up among inkers (especially if they were assigned to Frank Giacoia, who was a one-man splitting machine). Whoever it was, between them Sekowsky and the inker(s) did a damned nice likeness of Broderick Crawford. For that alone they get five Smurfswacker stars.

I sold my Dell collection years ago to pay the rent. The examples on this page are from the excellent fan site "Beware, There's a Crosseyed Cyclops in my Basement," which has recently been posting scans of many of the post-Western Dells.

Monday, August 24, 2009

X-9 by Mel Graff

Back from Translation
Recently I was experimenting with an Italian reprint of Mel Graff's first year on Secret Agent X-9. The book was published in 1975 by Comic Art Editrice for their "Yellow Kid" collection. The editor was the legendary Rinaldo Traini.

Comic Art did a really nice job with this series. Pages were roughly legal-size (8-1/2 x 14 inches), with three strips on each. Reproduction was extremely good. Unfortunately they laid shades of a second color (red-orange in this case) over the artwork. Not that it looked bad--it didn't, really--but the color softened the impact of Graff's superb black and white work.

So with the help of Photoshop I pulled the color off one page. I was thrilled to see that the linework quality remained high. The result is below. Of course, since I don't own these strips, I had to translate them back from Italian into English. It'd be great to get copies of the original strips and lay their text into the Comic Art reproductions. I can't tell you how clear and sharp they are.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

A Sight Unseen--5

Babe, Barrel, Bottles, Bullies--It's Delta 99!
Cleaning one's garage leads to wonderful rediscoveries like this one. From my small remaining original art collection comes a pencil page of Delta 99 by the marvelous Carlos Gimenez. I wrote about Gimenez, and Delta, in an earlier post.I bought this piece several years ago on eBay, when a Canadian collector was selling off his collection of originals. He had great tastes...lots of fine stuff by European cartoonists. This was the only one I could afford. It's in pencil on a lightweight 11x17 inch piece of Bristol board. The collector knew Gimenez but apparently not Delta 99, because he didn't recognize the source of this art.

It's obviously tied to Los Sucios, the story I excerpted in my earlier post. I gather it was an unused cover idea, though it may have been intended for the splash (I favor the former explanation because Delta 99 splashes usually had a panel or two recapping Delta's origin before the splash image).

It's such a clean pencil job that at first I wondered if Gimenez had light-boxed it from a rough. But inspection shows enough second thoughts and draw-throughs to suggest that Gimenez is just one of those guys who can draw it right the first time--darn him!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

All Talk and No Pictures--2

The Con and the Big Con
A look at the blog of Irene Gallo, art director of Tor Books (, brings into focus the fundamental changes the San Diego ComicCon has undergone since its long-ago El Cortez days. Gallo gives an enthusiastic catalog of deals made, dinners with clients and suppliers, and big upcoming projects. What's missing are the fans.

The ComicCon's model has morphed from dealers and fans to marketers and consumers. The Pros, as we reverently used to call them, appear not as individual creators enjoying a little hero-worship, but as suited representatives of commercial entities, be it Time/Warner/DC or Alex Ross Enterprises (or whatever the outfit was with the giant glitzy booth attended by slick three-pieced young men who weren't the artist). Long dead are the days when an unshaven Neal Adams sat behind a folding table and BS'd one-on-one with admirers!

Today the "Pros" are there to do business and the "fans" are there to buy stuff: books, trade paperbacks, limited edition prints, resin statuettes, videos, shirts, and especially tickets to the corporation's next movie.

Though I admit I miss the honest unscrupulousness of a dealer trying to fob a "fair" copy off as "near mint," I'm reluctant to blather on about this point because what I'm describing is simply the way things have changed in life as a whole. I don't like it, because I don't like the way America's national purpose has become the conversion of as many individuals as possible into undiscerning consumers with a built-in need to buy--and to keep buying--as much shit as possible.

Whether I like it or not, the mass market, the World Market, drives comics today just as it does every other entertainment medium. The entertainment industry suffers the same fundamental problem as corporate mass-market capitalism as a whole: the continued survival of a company depends upon the patently unusustainable model of constantly-increasing sales of increasingly-generic (and usually superfluous) products to a constantly-growing audience at an ever-increasing rate of profit.

Like everyone else I indulge in griping about the samness and often-low quality of the stuff out there, but I recognize doing so is foolish. As I've learned from the "grocery business," an attempt to meet the targets listed above on a global scale demands standardization and diminished quality. The best way to thrive--for a while--is not to adjust the product to the market, but to re-shape the consumer's tastes so that he or she demands the product that's easiest to produce. This includes the least possible variety and minimal localization. The entertainment industry, which 90% of the time means the American entertainment industry, has been working hard on this for over half a century, with considerable success.

American media, shows, music, fashion, story and character styles, and everything else have saturated the globe. Narrowing ownership of media outlets (TV, radio, print, Internet) aids the homogenization of audiences by training consumers from babyhood to expect a certain limited menu of content which the industry then delivers. Innovation and unique expression can only occur in a small-scale environment. That's why new ideas, be they stories, characters, or technologies, are usually created by individuals or a small group of people. The role of the mega-corporation is to acquire these successful innovations, reduce them to their most generic components, and feed the result to the world market.

One golden advantage of the small privately-held company is the luxury of saying, "this is big enough." The owner of such a firm may decide that feeding the family, providing for retirement and funding the kids' college is all he or she desires. As long as that standard is met the owner is satisfied and has no need to grow any bigger. Corporate entrepreneurs would gape at the suggestion that there could be such a thing as "big enough." As we said above the corporate organism's survival depends not upon profit but ever-increasing rates of profit. Enough can never be enough.

The Internet provides a way for creative individuals to get their stuff out without binding themselves to a corporation, and that's a great thing. It's disappointing that so much of the stuff they're getting out merely regurgitates what's already in the mass market. How many half-naked fighting anime dolls do we really need, anyway? But it's the best chance we have for interesting, personalized stories, providing we can find them. For now, the Web is the best way to sidestep the Big Con.